Top Ten Ways to be a Mensch (Good person)


By Adrienne Gold Davis, JWRP Israel, Trip Leader from The Village Shul (Toronto, ON)

From as early as I can remember, my mother implored me to ‘be a lady’. It was the shorthand for behavioral expectations, in any situation. It implied refinement and dignity, a refusal to ‘sink to another’s level’ and to handle oneself properly regardless of the provocation. My brother was meant to be a gentleman.  As family, we had a code of conduct, one which I thought to be ours alone. I came to discover that it was gleaned and anglicized from the teachings of my grandparents who had been raised with what today one might call a Yiddishe Cop; people raised  to be MENTCHEN.

When I was growing up, I remember hearing a woman I knew use “Yiddishe Cop” in a way that was clearly derisive, and most definitely shorthand for a dismissive attitude about non-Jews. When someone who’s thought process disturbed or confounded her, when they were unsuccessful in business, when they missed an opportunity…she would say that the person did not have “a yiddisheh cop” (a Jewish head). Her basic message was that they were foreign or even inferior in sensibility; that they were somehow missing the seychil (common sense) that a Jew inherently possessed. I thought of her comments as racist; particularly because she couldn’t define what a Yiddisheh cop really was.  Nor did I think she was ‘being a mentsh’ by commenting on another person’s mental capacity. Hers was that elitist Jewish mindset that in my uninformed mind was the reason that ‘they all hate us’, whoever the ‘they’ might be. Even though they all wanted a Jewish Lawyer or Doctor.  Because of that Yiddishe Cop.  Oy.

 Fast forward 20 odd years or so, and I became immersed in the study of Judaism. I thrilled to its philosophies and ideologies, became enamored with its behavioral, social and interpersonal demands, and came to believe that its paths were the sweeter and more fulfilling ones. And so as I began my journey down a road less travelled, I came to see as Robert Frost said before me, that this path was well trodden. And it was my choice to travel it that made all the difference. I decided to attempt to break down the notion of the Yiddishe Cop….to understand what by then I had come to understand was actually true. Jews DO think differently than the other nations. Not necessarily better or worse…. simply different. I decided to think about what constitutes being a Mentch. The following is a breakdown of the things I think best classify a person as possessing Mentschlichkeit, of thinking with a Yiddishe Cop. I will leave it to you to decide which path you chose to tread. All I recommend though is that you first look at the map. It is interesting to note that in Israel a Mentsh is called a Ben Adam (a son of man…a human….) as if the struggle to be human is a feat only accomplished by elevating oneself above ones human urges and becoming holy. Here we go then…………..Mentsh lessons in shorthand. Each point could be studied and discussed in great length. This is simply my shorthand

The Top Ten Ways to be a Mensch or Raise one

  1. Shalom Bayt : Peace in the home/business environment

Learn to apologize even when you are in the wrong. Practice saying ‘oops I blew it” or ‘wow, I sure got that wrong’ to prepare yourself for the moments you’ll really need to say them. Know that sometimes you can win the battle but lose the war. Valuing peace over the moral superiority of being right is a gift you give yourself.   Apologizing does not always mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego,

  1. Kavod Ha”Briyot: Respect and show kindness to all creation

We are ultimately obligated to show respect and honor to all creatures…while we have a Mitzvah to love all Jews, love occurs in concentric circles. Even the swarming bees have rights. Teach yourself and your kids to feed your pet before themselves in the morning. We have an obligation to answer to their needs first as they are incapable of delaying gratification with self-talk.

  1. Bal Tashchit:  Respect the environment and don’t destroy or waste:

Environmentalism in not a new political agenda: rather it is deeply Jewish concept.  Genesis (Bereishit) shows us the model of our relationship as humans with the rest of creation, and our obligations to tend, repair and protect the world. Consider the laws of Shabbat apply to the land as well, the biblical concept of Peah (the corner of the field) the concept of Shmitah (the land resting).

  1. Tzedakah: (justice or righteousness (charity))

The obligation to give between 10 and 20% of your net income is a righteous obligation, not a charitable emotional response. The implication of this is that there is an imbalance in the world and the Jews obligation in justice and righteousness is to correct this imbalance.

  1. Don’t Speak Lashon Hara: (avoid hurtful language and gossip)

It is Lashan Hara EVEN/ESPECIALLY if it is true….Actually, only one type of Lashon Hara (lit. "evil speech") reflects lies. Speaking lies (slander) is called "motzi shem ra" – literally spreading a bad name. It's pretty easy to imagine how lies, and even exaggeration, can unfairly damage someone's reputation. There are two commandments that explicitly prohibit lying: Lo tisa shema shav – you shall not utter a false report. Ex. 23:1)and  Midavar sheker tirchak – from a false matter you shall distance yourself. (Ex. 23:7)

Learn the laws together and reward verbal sensitivity

  1. Don’t rationalize:

We learn that “The Hebrew word for sin is chet….which is derived from an old archery term used when an archer ‘misses the mark’. This helps inform the Jewish view of sin; all people are essentially good and sin is a product of our errors, or missing the mark, as we are all imperfect”. Pick up the bow and shoot again. Do not tell yourself Rational Lies.

  1. Gemilut Hasadim: (performing acts of kindness to help others)

Jews do not practice random acts of kindness; rather we follow the requirement of righteous behavior in an entirely non-random way. This insures that regardless of your mood, or whether you are moved to action, you will act none-the-less. Teach the kids (and do this yourself) to be searching for opportunities to do kindnesses. Carry band-aids, aspirins, chewing gum, subway tokens, loose change, candy or any other things that people ‘need’ on a regular basis…so that YOU can be the one to provide it.

  1.   Talmud Torah:  Emphasise Jewish Learning:

Jewish learning as it pertains to ethics, morals and ideals is more important to praise than marks in academics. If your child’s honesty, inclusion of an annoying sibling or kindness to a grandparent garnered the same praise as an A on their report card, the child will feel a self esteem not tied to their intellectual learning style. Raising a mensch means teaching them what Judaism says about what it means to be a good person.

  1. Rodef Shalom: Be a Pursuer of Peace

For kids this opportunity plays out daily in the school yard or cafeteria, or Facebook or through text. If you or your child searches out opportunities for peacemaking they will become righteous themselves and a true gift to their peers. Being the peacemaker amongst peers (for kids and adults alike) can deepen our ability to see two sides of a story and offer perspective in problem solving

10) Tefillah:    (prayer)

Prayer can begin in an informal way as an expression of gratitude. Gratitude and humility diminishes entitlement and teaches us to feel deep appreciation for all the gifts we have. While Jewish standardized prayer is exquisite and every word carefully chosen, remember G-D understands all languages and wants to ‘hear from  us’. And remember, sometimes the answer to your prayers is ‘no’. No is also an answer.

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