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Be a Mensch! (Erev Rosh Hashanah 5784)

My first job out of college was working at the Hillel at the University of Wisconsin. Each week at the staff meeting, we’d review the week gone by: the meetings of various student organizations, the different programs, and of course, Shabbat. With three different student-led minyans and a big Shabbat dinner that regularly saw hundreds of students, Shabbat was always the sticking point: my boss would often say “If we can’t get Shabbat right, then we have no business doing anything else.”

Thinking about who we are as Hevreh, and who we dream of being, an iteration of that has landed for me as true northstar for the year ahead: If we can’t get being mensches right, then we have no business doing anything else.

5783 was an incredible year, in so many ways.

Over the course of the past year, these four walls have contained so much life.

We’ve gathered around tables for Community Shabbatot.

Dived into text and art at Creative Beit Midrash Shabbatonim

Celebrated with families as they have marked milestones from babynamings to B. Mitzvahs, to aufrufs for young people we have been privileged to watch grow up.

We told stories of our own journeys and danced at our Women’s Seder

From our ECC students to Tot Shabbat, this space is regularly filled with our youngest community members playing and learning together.

We sang our way across the sea at Shabbat Shira, and oh how we have sung together throughout this year— our music elevated by a growing group of musicians who have joined together with our artist-in-residence Peri Smilow.

We have laughed and prayed and sung together on Sunday mornings at Boker Tov Hevreh.

It’s been an incredible year of gathering and connection.

Naturally, there have been challenges, as well.

In the spirit of a new year, it feels important that we name those challenges out loud, not simply to bemoan the ways in which we fell short of who we dream of being, but because they give us a compass— a guidebook for the year ahead.

Simply put: even amidst all of the wonderful ways we have connected and learned and celebrated together, it has also been a year in which we have witnessed and experienced some decidedly un-menschlike behavior.

Unkind words, sarcasm, bullying— and I know, that is not who we dream of being.

We have done so much good, and yet, what better time than the start of a new year to strive to be better.

All of that amazing celebration and connection and gathering is for naught, if we don’t operate from a baseline of menschlikeit in our interactions with one another.

According to the 1968 book “The Joys of Yiddish”, the definition of mensch is “ someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being "a real mensch" is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.

Our tradition has so many ways of talking about what it means to be a good person: but what I love about both the concept of being a mensch, and the word itself, is that it’s all about being human: it’s not fancy— in fact, it’s worth noting, that “mensch” is itself a Yiddish word: Yiddish, that mamaloshen, our mother tongue: the most familiar way we have of talking about being a good person. It’s informal and instinctual: something you hope your bubbe will call you.

Something I have noticed is that as a community, we often think about “teaching” menschlikeit as something that is uni-directional: we, the adults, teach the young people how to be mensches. We’ve even had a full curriculum component of our religious school called “Mensch on a Mission”--- a year long study of menschlikeit: complete with hands on learning outside of the classroom, as our students took all of the Jewish values they learned in the classroom and applied it to building connection and community during monthly visits to local assisted living facilities.

It seems to me that in this year ahead, we might all benefit from a refresher course. This year, it’s not for our 4th and 5th grade students: it’s for all of us. In fact, it’s going to be our core curriculum, with opportunities to practice baked right into your everyday life

What are these High Holy Days if not an advanced seminar in Jewish living?

The thing that differentiates this “seminar” so to speak from any other, is that you already know all of the information: there’s no required reading or final exam— though if there were, it would be pass/fail.

More than anything else— these days invite us to check back in with our own souls: and to bring our kishkes: our gut instincts and intuition to bear on the work ahead.

To begin, a story:

Rabbi Yanai was walking through town— and noticed another man, well dressed, and who carried himself in a way that appeared to him very distinguished.

Rabbi Yanai approached the man, and invited him to dinner.

The man accepted Rabbi Yanai’s invitation, and later that night, went to his home, where Rabbi Yanai had prepared a wonderful table filled with food and drink.

Despite the seemingly friendly and casual invitation, Rabbi Yanai spent the entire evening testing his guest: citing chapter and verse of Torah, and finding that his guest did not know what he was talking about. He continued— quizzing his guest on mishnah and gemara— finding that his guest knew nothing about this.

Rabbi Yanai thought to himself— “here I thought this man seemed distinguished, and yet, he knows nothing!”

Finally, the meal ended and he turned to his guest, and asked him to say the blessing after the meal. His guest demurred—”No, no, Rav Yanai: we’re in your house. You should recite Birkat HaMazon.”

Rabbi Yanai was furious. He can’t even recite a blessing!

The situation grows tense. Rabbi Yanai’s disdain is palpable, and his guest is insulted. The two go back and forth– finally, the guest cries out: who are you to judge me!?

Undeterred, Rabbi Yanai asks: “How are you worthy to eat at my table?”

The guest replied, “Never have I heard an evil word spoken against me and returned to argue with the person who spoke it. Never have I seen two people arguing without making peace between them.”

Suddenly, it all becomes clear, and finally, Rabbi Yanai realizes his mistake.

“Here you are, my guest— with so much derech eretz, so much menschlikeit. And here I am, reciting chapter and verse of Torah, with no regard for how I treated you.”

This story would become infamous amongst future generations. The story, recorded in Leviticus Rabbah, concludes with this comment:

Derech eretz kadma l’Torah.

Derech eretz, literally— the way of the world, or being a mensch

Kadma l’Torah- comes before Torah.

Walking the right path— being a mensch, comes above all else. Even Torah.

Put differently: there is no amount of learning that we can do from a book, not even when that book is our sacred Torah, that will be meaningful unless we act first and foremost from a place of menschlikeit, lest the Torah become an idol.

On Rosh Hashanah, we encounter the story of creation: encoded in Genesis, those first chapters recounting the creation of humanity in this world, is the idea that human beings are born with good character traits and attributes already ingrained in our nature.

That humans possess an innate capacity to intuit certain norms of derech eretz is reflected in a somewhat humorous Talmudic teaching in which R. Yochanan said: Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned to be modest from cats, to avoid theft from ants, to avoid promiscuity from doves, and derech eretz from roosters.

All of which is to say— it is in our nature to find the right path: to refine our character to be humble, honest, and good at heart. All of that— even before we get to Torah.

Derech Eretz Kadma L’Torah: the idea that derech eretz, being a mensch, precedes Torah also suggests that menschlichkeit is uncommanded, and unlegislated.

All of those 613 commandments represent obligations:

Don’t steal. Don’t murder.

Clear cases of right and wrong.

But being a mensch—- figuring out what derech eretz means, is a behavioral principle: not theological, or legal. It is entirely about how we relate to other individuals and to our society at large without explicit connection to our relationship with God.

And this is where your kishkes come in.

Sometimes we need to use intuition and gut instinct to figure out the right path.

There’s a picture book that my children received from PJ Library a few years back called “Estie the Mensch”.

The main character, young Estie, like most children, sometimes has a hard time with other people. She finds them challenging: other kids always hogging the best toys, grown ups asking her questions she doesn’t know the answer to.

Her parents encourage her to be polite: to sit at the dinner table, rather than under it, pretending to be the family pup. To use a napkin to clean her fingers rather than licking them off.

But being polite isn’t really the goal— at least not for Estie’s grandma who instead shakes her head, and lovingly says in Yiddish “Oy, Estie. Zai a mensch!”

Estie— be a mensch!

One day, Estie’s grandma takes Estie to the zoo along with her own friend and her friends’ grandson who is around Estie’s age. Estie and Petey are two peas in a pod: causing just the right amount of havoc as they pretend to be all the animals in the zoo, giving new meaning to the phrase “vilde chaya”--- or, wild animal, as my grandpa Lou would call me and my cousins when we were little and getting out of control.

The story reaches its peak when Petey’s ice cream falls off the cone, and Estie shares hers with him. After all of those grandmotherly reminders to “Zai a mensch!”, little Estie gets it just right. Estie acts like mensch.

It’s a great story book—- who among us can’t relate to that feeling that little Estie has that being a person can be tough? And yet, when moments present themselves to us, like they did to Estie seeing her friends’ scoop of ice cream land on the ground, our kishkes kick in, telling us what to do.

But the thing that I really love about this story, is that Estie doesn’t learn how to be a mensch in the classroom, or from a book- but rather, from her grandmother.

Truly, menschlikeit, that Yiddish word spoken in the mamaloshen, points to a kind of behavior that is instilled in us by people who love us: by our family, by beloved teachers, by community elders.

If being a mensch isn’t about God, then it gets reinforced at the dinner table; in the backseat of the minivan. As R. Eugene Borowitz wrote "Jews may not have dogmas, but they do have relatives."

We don’t have dogma; we have community.

We have each other to show up for— to reinforce the derech eretz— the menschlikeit that we strive to represent in our community.

This year, if we are to take the charge of relearning the art of menschlikeit seriously, I would suggest that it’s not enough to say that we should be mensches, but rather to show each other how to be mensches: not to keep our good deeds locked away in a closet, but to do them publicly: to bring our kids with us when we drop off a meal for someone who is struggling; to invite a friend to join us when we pay a visit to someone in the hospital. Being a mensch is contagious, The kind of contagion we actually need amid these past few years.

There will be moments when you know that the chance to be a mensch is right in front of you, and you get to choose how you will respond. These moments will test us in how we speak to one another, how we spend our time and our resources, and how we show up for one another.

You’ll be tested, more than anything, by being human. You’ll have had a hard day yourself. You’ll be tired. Your kids will be whining, your spouse will have finished the last of the coffee before you had a sip, you’ll be running late.

But you’ll be called upon: by death, by illness, by struggle— by life.

And when these moments present themselves, people may not remember exactly what you do or do not do, but they will remember how your words and actions made them feel.

Amidst all the good that this congregation and the larger community does for one another, we have also missed the mark. We have spoken unkindly to one another. We have made assumptions. We have not shown up for others.

If we aren't mensches first and foremost, we have no business being in business. Derech eretz kadma latorah. Being mensches comes ahead of it all.

That is one of the reasons why our congregation has embarked on a process of developing an Ethical Framework for Hevreh. For all of the ways in which menschlichkeit is informal and personal, we know that it fits into a larger communal ethos about how we interact with one another. Hopefully you have seen in our bulletin or in recent congregational communications information about the work that our Ethics Task Force is doing to institutionalize this work.

The Ethic Task Force, comprised of a diverse group of congregants has been tasked with helping to define a congregational ethos for us that will describe our commitments to each other through our shared humanity. Part of that work requires us, as a congregation, to better understand where we have fallen short: where and when have we missed the mark in how we treat one another. We know the many ways in which this is counter-cultural: how society has normalized all sorts of behavior that allows us not to care for one another. But here, in this Hevreh, we want to protect the safety and sanctity of each person who finds themselves here, which will require a process of reflection. It will take all of us showing up, willing to tell our stories, and to commit to this process together.

In this new year ahead, this is my deepest vision and hope for us: that we will do this work from the inside out: from the inner personal work of honing our own menschlikeit, to developing and supporting an ethical ethos for who we are as a community.

And so, here’s your homework.

(I may have said there was no required reading— but there is definitely some homework).

First: assume everyone has good intentions.

Assume that the person you are speaking with means well. Approach points of conflict or friction with curiosity rather than certainty.

Second: Assume everyone is a little bit lonely.

Assume that any invitation you can offer to another person: whether it’s to sit next to you at services, go for a walk, or to join you for dinner at Koi, is an invitation that will alleviate someone else’s loneliness, even a little bit.

Finally: Assume that each act of kindness, each gentle word, each invitation to be in relationship is one that you do with no expectation of return.

But, know that if you put menschiness into the world, it will come back to you.

The Greek storyteller, Aesop, was famous for saying “We are known by the company we keep”.

Hevreh, I believe that we dream of being mensches.

I believe that the vision we hold for who we are as a community is one of kindness and humanity.

In this year ahead, may we each merit to see that dream come true: and may each of us do our share to make it so.

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