This morning’s sermon is dedicated to Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister. May he be granted a speedy recovery and R’fuah Shlaimah. Together, let us recite Psalm 130 in the name of Ariel Ben Devorah.
The Yiddish language is more than just a combination of German, Hebrew and Polish. It is an art form, where a simple one-syllable word can convey an entire concept or idea. Combined with the right gesture or inflection, one tiny Yiddish word can express more than a whole paragraph in English. That is the beauty of the language. In Yiddish, one of the highest praises we can give a person is to describe him or her as a real mensch. What is a mensch? What does it mean to bemenschlikeit? Even the American Heritage Dictionary doesn’t capture the true essence of mensch, in the definition "a person having admirable characteristics, such as fortitude and firmness of purpose."
My dear friends, there are words in the Yiddish language that just don’t perfectly translate into English. My teachers used to say that one who knows Yiddish is a semi-scholar, because it is the balanced combination of judaic knowledge and vocabulary.
The question then, is how do we adequately translate the word mensch? Let’s visit today’s Torah portion, Vaigash, for a beautiful example of menschlikeit, as seen in the way Joseph received his brothers. Even better, let us look at the way the brothers behaved toward the young Joseph to see what it means to NOT behave in a menschlikeit way. The brothers, overcome with jealousy over their father Jacob’s love towards Joseph, placed him in a slave pit and sold him to enemies. Additionally, they deceived Jacob with a tale of Joseph’s death, and show him the coat splattered with goat’s blood. We can all agree that this is deplorable behavior.
Joseph’s life in Egypt was bitter, having toiled as a slave, then being betrayed by Potiphar’s wife, he was thrown in jail. While in jail, he is again betrayed, this time by the King’s butler and baker. Eventually, with G-d’s help, Joseph emerged as Viceroy to the King, after interpreting a dream, thereby preventing the famine that had struck the surrounding nations. Still, after all these tribulations, when Joseph spotted his brothers, who had come to Egypt seeking sustenance during the famine, Joseph did not hold a grudge. Quite the contrary, he provided them with ample food and money, behaving honorably, with compassion, kindness and caring. Joseph was a real mensch.
Seeking revenge means that when one person causes harm to another, he or she deserves to be treated in kind. From an intellectual standpoint, we know that only results in two people being hurt. However, it is more common to react to similar situations from an emotional level and respond with vengeance, to hold grudges and even the score. Knowing the biblical story of Joseph, it is possible to take the high road and be a mensch.
Joseph’s exemplary behavior as Viceroy in Egypt taught his brothers an important lesson. He helped his entire family settle in Goshen, where they prospered agriculturally and financially. He made the relocation from Canaan as painless as possible, setting them up in a remote section of the land where they would be protected and grow into a thriving nation.
A sneak peak into the next Torah Portion, Vayachi, shows us that Joseph continued to act in a menschlikeit manner, even after Jacob’s death. He could have used the opportunity to retaliate, but instead remained righteous and honorable, even assuming the fatherly role of caring for the family.
Now my dear friends, stop and think how we can apply these lessons to our own lives, here in America in the year 2006. Close your eyes for a moment and search your soul. Do we behave in a menschlikeit manner each day? How do we treat our immediate family members, our co-workers and employees or our close friends? Especially when we may have been hurt or betrayed by someone? Do we hold grudges? Seek revenge? Do we let our anger fester and carry around years of pain and animosity? Or do we take the high road and behave like Joseph, like a mensch?
This Tuesday we observe the fast of Asara b’Teves, when we remember the siege of the First Temple. Our sages tell us that the observance is not merely about the act of fasting, but in understanding the historical purpose that the fast represents. The rabbis tell us that during the era of the first Beit HaMikdash, enemies gathered around the holy city of Jerusalem. They breached the walls which lead to the eventual destruction of the Holy Temple. At the time, the Jews were not acting in a menschlikeit fashion. Many were worshipping idols. Communities were divided. They weren’t taking the high road, they chose instead to take the road to self-destruction and lost control over Jerusalem.
You may feel that this happened in the past, so why fast today? Our Rabbis tell us that as long as we are still divided, and not acting like mensches, we need to fast. We need to focus on our actions and behaviors that led to the destruction of our Temple and our people. We need to examine our deeds and return to a path that leads to good and righteousness. We need to find the high road, as our brother Joseph did, and live a better quality of life, through conflict resolution and respect for our brothers and sisters.
As Prime Minister Sharon lay helplessly in Hadassah Hospital, in an induced coma, it has been upsetting to hear hurtful and vengeful comments that have sprouted from some esteemed and responsible people over the past few days. There are those who just cannot behave as a mensch and sadly say publicly that, what happened to Ariel Sharon is punishment from G-d. No matter what one feels about his political views, isn’t it the right time to set aside our differences and go the extra mile for a fellow Jew. Can’t we behave in a menschlikeit manner?
I presume that those of you who watch TV or listen to other media have heard the comments made by our Palestinian opponents that Ariel Sharon’s condition is justice and retribution from G-d. Several of our so-called friends, leaders and clergy have used their respected positions to convey to the public that G-d punished Sharon because he gave away land. Where is their menschlikeit in this behavior?
What separates us from our Mid-eastern neighbors is that we Jews have a high regard for life, that no matter who it is that is ailing or is killed, we do not rejoice. We take no pleasure in the ending of a life. We don’t parade in the streets and cheer at someone else’s pain, even our enemies. You don’t see Israeli soldiers giving each other a high-five when they’ve overcome a suicide bomber.
My dear friends, I sincerely hope that these words that come from my heart will enter yours, and cause you to reflect on your own actions and thoughts. Maybe it is time to pick up a phone or write a letter asking forgiveness from someone you may have hurt or to whom you may have not acted in amenschlikeit manner. It is good for your health, for your family and society. Peace in your home means peace in your life. Make the commitment to go the extra mile on the path to menschlikeit.
Remember the role model of the biblical Joseph and how he behaved towards his brothers. Remember the Asara B’Teves, the tenth of Teves and the underlying reason of its fast. In the best-selling book, Love, Medicine and Miracles, Yale surgeon, Dr. Bernie Siegel wrote, that if we behave in a manner of forgiveness and try to follow that direction, we have a better chance to cure ourselves, our health, our surroundings, our family and friends.
Do you recall the inspiring story of Morrie Schwartz who, in August of 1994, was fatally diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease? He was given a two year death sentence by his doctors that was chronicled in Mitch Albom’s book, Tuesday with Morrie: An Old man, a Young Man and Life’s Greatest Lesson. Schwartz’s philosophy was that people should spend their lives investing in other people, making memories and being joyous. He believed that living fully included maintaining your composure with high spirits, inner peace, self-respect and self-esteem. In other words, be a mensch.
Oftentimes, as a Rabbi, I speak extemporaneously and say things that may be difficult to hear. I don’t say things to hurt people and I ask forgiveness if I’ve done so. I hope no one holds a grudge over my public statements or viewpoints. I try to inspire people to look inside themselves and find their own menschlikeit. Sometimes, it is not easy. As for myself, I try hard to be a mensch and hope that I reflect the best in Congregation Kneseth Israel, serving as a spiritual leader for our 100 year old special community.
I sincerely bless each of you. May you take today’s message to your heart. With G-d’s help, may we live meaningful and healthy lives.