Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Being a Mensch

I told a friend that he is a Mensch - a good man. What is a Mensch? I knew that it was a Yiddish word for a good man, but I wanted to get a definition from online somewhere.

I looked it up and here is what I found:

A mensch literally means "a person" in Yiddish, but figuratively it means something much deeper. A mensch is a person with whom you would be happy to befriend and associate with, because you feel genuine in a mensch's presence. A mensch is a highly evolved human being. Menschlichkeit (the art of the mensch) has nothing to do with looks, with wealth, with success or with intellect. A mensch exudes a certain magnetism that attracts us, whether or not words or glances are exchanged. A person is a mensch because he simply makes others feel good.
I've never really known a full-fledged mensch, although I've come across a few saintly types from time to time. Each one of them contained certain qualities that interested me because, you see, I aspire to become a mensch. Right now, I can't boast that I possess those qualities, but I'm working on it.

I've known a lot of people who think they're mensch's. They'll expound their righteousness: "I'm a good person, I don't harm anyone", they'll tell you. My first reaction is not whether they cause harm; I prefer to ask, "how much good do you do?” although I usually hold my tongue out of respect. Menschlichkeit deals in doing good.

I went about exploring the ingredients menschs utilize to induce people into contentment, starting with the proposition that we're all naturally decent individuals, or at least that's what I think God intended. But then we come across certain roadblocks on our journey through life that brings us unfortunate circumstances coupled with the emotions of fear, anger or sorrow. We all encounter that in some form, at some time. But on rare occasions, we're fortunate enough to meet up with a mensch, and in his presence the uneasiness melts away.

A well-known aphorism from the Talmud's Pirke Avot, the revered collection of wise rabbinical sayings sparked my search for becoming a mensch. The line that caught my attention was attributed to Rabbi Hillel who said, "What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to them". I don't know which came first, but it appears to be the inverse of "do unto others as you would have others do unto you". There's another one that completes a trilogy of wise old maxims and that's the biblical dictum, "to love your neighbor as yourself". These messages illuminate the potential of superb inter-personal relationships, but how do you implement them? Willing it, doesn't work. You have to ask yourself what it is you want others "to do unto you". When I'm hurting emotionally, I want a mensch to listen precisely to what's on my mind without telling me what he thinks or what I should do. If I'm hurting I just want to be heard. Listening is an art we seemed to have lost. But by listening, a mensch would make you feel worthy and cared for. A mensch would listen to what you need and what you feel.

So in my journey towards mensch-hood, I diligently practice listening. In conversations, I listen intently; and in the painstaking process of listening I try to concentrate on the meanings of the words and their nuances. Often body language helps me understand. I won't, however, sit there close-mouthed; I'll utter an occasional "hmmm" or "tell me more" or "I'm sorry that happened to you". And the more I simply comment reflectively, the more people open up to unburden themselves.

As I browsed further through Pirke Avot, another mensch-maker caught my eye: "Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place". Another Hillellism suggesting that its hard enough to understand ourselves, let alone another person. By permitting others to unfold and unwind according to their own timetable requires that we trust their intrinsic righteousness and dignity. That means to accept others just the way they are, with all of their hang-ups, faults and unruly behavior; we don't have to condone anything. You don't have to conform, agree, approve or praise; you just have to accept unconditionally. It takes unrelenting effort, but that's how understanding someone else comes to light.

How much more godlike can we become than to accept another's imperfections? The Torah states, "And they shall ask me, "What is His name? What shall I say? And God said to Moses, "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh"; translated loosely: "I am who I am" (Exodus:13-14). To "be how you are" is to judge with equanimity, without preconceived notions, renouncing preferences and remaining, at all times, balanced. It's all so remarkably simple and yet as if by alchemy, people transform themselves. And the best part is—that as you learn to accept and to listen to other people's suffering, while developing as a mensch, you learn to accept yourself as well.

URL for this post: http://www.jewishealing.com/theartofthemensch.html

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