Being a Mensch [Parshat Acharei – Kedoshim By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the L-rd, your G-d, am holy – Lev 19:2

Yet again this week we are faced with the stark contrast of good and evil, and the tragic consequences when evil roams free. Only an evil mind could deliberately target innocent bystanders; men, women and children waiting at a marathon finish line to celebrate with friends and loved ones.

Fred Rogers is the author of a parenting advice book, in which he shares a beautiful thought from his childhood. He says, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” For wherever there is evil, there is good to be found in abundance, and one only has to look at the aftermath of the Boston tragedy to see the goodness at work: People donating their blood and their assistance, their phones, cars and homes, to help wherever possible.

In Budapest this Sunday there will be a Holocaust memorial march, involving members of the Jewish and local communities. Only ten days ago, after heavy petitioning from the Jewish community and other groups, the authorities banned a bikers’ rally called “Give Gas,” a neo-Nazi motorcade which was to coincide with the march, and even to pass by the synagogue. Sadly, good and evil will often travel the same road.

One of the images in this parsha comment last week was a powerful one: Israeli air force fighter jets passing over Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2003. The contrast is stark — those with a mission to protect and defend, over a place where the mission was to kill and destroy. Good above and evil below.

In the parsha this week, we are told to be holy — “Kedoshim tihiyu.” Does holy entail merely not being evil? No. The Torah lists the things we need to do in order to be holy. It involves staying away from sin and immorality, from idol worship and theft, cruelty and corruption; it involves deference to parents and observance of Shabbat, protection of youth and respect for the elderly, and preservation of the purity of the land and the animal kingdom by not grafting or cross-breeding.

Being holy, however, entails so much more than simply being good and not evil. If we look at further instructions in this Torah section, we will see that being holy also entails being a mensch.

Guy Kawasaki writes a blog about venture capital, publishing and hi-tech. One of his posts is about “being a mensch.” He defines a mensch as someone who helps people who cannot ever return the favour, not caring if the recipient is rich, famous, or powerful. His mensch also helps people without the expectation of return … at least in this life.

The list of mitzvot we read in the Torah today includes: Leaving some of the harvest for the poor, paying wages on time, not cursing the deaf or tripping up the blind (or naïve), not perverting justice (even to help the poor), not telling tales or bearing a grudge. It includes standing up before the elderly, welcoming the stranger and being scrupulously honest in business dealings.

These are things that may not change the world, they are not matters of life or death … but they make us holy. Staying away from the occasional temptation to sin can be easy, being a mensch on a daily basis — now that is a challenge.

A young woman called Eliana lived here in Dublin for a while, and recently married and moved to Israel. Her husband Shmuel speaks fluent Arabic and can often understand what is being said around him when others assume he cannot. She wrote the following account about a bus journey he took recently:

A woman pushed her way to the front, which you kind of have to do when the bus is that full and it’s almost your stop. But what you don’t have to do is pick on the driver. She yelled at him for playing Arabic music, saying that it’s totally unprofessional for him to make her listen to that kind of music as loud as he did. (Keep in mind that Israeli bus drivers always play the radio on loudspeaker. It’s just usually Galgalatz, a popular Hebrew/English station.)

Shmuel says she went on and on and he was surprised that no one butted in. Israelis are famous for butting in, like last week when a bus driver misplaced my accent and told me to learn the word for ‘bus transfer’ or “go back to France,” before getting an earful from all the old people sitting up front. 

The woman got off at the next stop, which means she really wasn’t going to be affected by his music so long anyway and she really just wanted to mess with him. Shmuel moved to the front when the bus started moving again.  When he got up there, the driver had turned off the radio and was speaking to another Arab man who was standing by the door. He heard the other man say under his breath, “and that’s how they want us to make peace?”

So he did what he’s always done. He made peace, the way you do when your cousin just kicked over the sandcastle. He started speaking to them in Arabic. He asked the bus driver to turn the radio back on, but he wouldn’t do it because he didn’t want to make people angry. The three of them talked the rest of the route, though, till Shmuel got off at our stop. They talked about music and Arabic, about Petach Tikva and Shmuel’s job in the army. He said it was the best part of his day, and by the end the bus driver had the radio back on. Quieter, but on.

I like to think of him standing there, speaking Arabic in his green army uniform with a kippah on his head. Of course not every soldier is a good guy and not every religious person is a good guy and not everybody who likes to practice speaking Arabic with every stranger they run into is a good guy. But when he walks around, representing these things and behaving like the man he is, it makes me happy.

This small anecdote is not about good and evil, it’s simply about being a mensch. The decision not to be evil is not a difficult one for most of us to make … it is hopefully our default behaviour.

Being a mensch, on the other hand …  Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.


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