Zai a Mensch!
By Rabbi Basil Herring
In countless ways we teach and condition our children to be ambitious, successful, to rise to the top, to be accomplished, wealthy and self- reliant. But lately many of us have come to realize that this unbridled success ethic, this worshipping at the altar of the almighty dollar, has entailed a hidden moral cost, some very real trade-offs, problems that many of us never anticipated when we were growing up, or when we were imparting priorities to children of our own.
Do you remember when your parents or grandparents would tell you tsu zai a mensch (be a mensch)? Can you recall being told meh tor nisht (?it's wrong to act that way?), or ez is nisht bekovidik (?that's dishonorable behavior?), or by Yidden tut min nisht azay (?we Jews just don't do such things?)? These were the expressions that Jewish boys and girls grew up with, they were mother's milk to them, when traditional Jewish life was anchored in a matrix of moral moorings that taught decency, sensitivity to others, respect for the law both of God and of man, both of Jew and of Gentile, and an instinctive recoil from exploiting the weakness or ignorance of others. Sure there were expectations that we should succeed, or as our parent's generation put it ?make something of ourselves?, but side by side with such ?great expectations,? there was also the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, intimation that it was equally, if not more important, to be a ?mensch,? always to ?do the right thing,? to respect the rules, to have a sense of honor and duty, always to be sensitive to the needs of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the ?other guy? you dealt with or who needed you.
But in recent decades so much seems to have changed. From their very earliest years, our children are conditioned in word and in gesture, by us, by their teachers, and by their peers, to get ahead of the pack. They are bottle fed on the notion that it's a harsh, competitive world out there, that you have to get into the best schools, achieve the best grades, the highest paying jobs, start a business, make ?partner? early, by hook or by crook--in a word ?succeed,? because everyone ?knows? that success is, when all is said and done, what really counts. Of course parents don't necessarily put it in such crass or blatant fashion, but the young people get the message anyway. They know dam well who are the people whom we respect, whom we seek to befriend, the ones whom we honor and look up to: are they the ones who make the time to visit local hospitals, or befriend the lonely, or who volunteer to serve their community or synagogues selflessly--or are they the other ones? A wise man once said, ?you can fool the whole world, but you can't fool your kids!?
Now there is nothing wrong with setting high expectations of personal success and professional advancement. And there is surely every reason to admire the men and women who have risen to the top of their chosen field, business or career. And it is correct and proper that we give our children the best possible general and professional education and opportunities, even as we encourage them to work hard and succeed. But there must surely be something wrong when so many of us fail to place equal weight on ethical excellence and moral merit. Why do so many mothers and fathers tolerate disrespectful behavior on the part of their children, not only towards teachers and other adults, but towards their own selves as parents? Why do so many parents, and grandparents, for that matter, allow their youngsters to use foul language, exclude or pick on weaker children, gossip and malign others while seated around the dinner table, lie or cheat in school examinations, and fail to extend themselves in behalf of other people who need help or understanding? Why do we spend so much energy and time ensuring that our kids grow up able to play piano, do gymnastics, dress for success, and are socially ?cool?, but we cannot find the time, the patience, the resources to guide their moral development, the emergence of a healthy conscience or sense of duty or loyalty to traditional values? Or is it possibly because these values have become less central to our own lives, as we ourselves become inured to the original Jewish sensitivities, the milk of human kindness on which generations of Jews were suckled and raised, just a little less concerned about cheating here and there, or about taking liberties with the rules of conduct? Why do our schools recognize and reward excellence in math or reading, but not distinction in generosity, sensitivity, or menschligkeit too?
Granted that in large measure our society is to blame. True, it is that our public schools all too often are responsible for fostering an atmosphere of cynicism, moral relativism, and a permissiveness that is shocking and disgraceful in a country that purports to stand under God, and for biblical values. And it is also true that the cultural forces, such as television, radio, magazines, and movies that insinuate their way into our lives, can at times be overwhelming for any family. Yet such cultural forces do not for a moment absolve a parent or grandparent of the ultimate responsibility for the moral development of the next generation. It's tine for both parents to want to pursue dual careers, demanding social calendars, and vacations without the kids--things that are increasingly commonplace and the norm -- but do they do right by their children and teenagers when they leave them for large chunks of the day, day after day, or for extended periods of their youth, in the hands of caretakers, housekeepers, or other professionals, people whose values, habits, counsel and advice may not be models of upright virtue'? As they pursue their own careers, their self-centered game plans, do they not perchance dress their own selfish motivations in high sounding moral language, to the detriment not only of their children, but of society's values too'?
What is called for is an honest coming to grips with the current ethic of our society, so tolerant of this kind of an unbridled self-interest that all too often pretends to be in the common good. What we need is to disabuse ourselves, and our children, of the self-serving notion that greed is good for our society, or that the people are best served by the self-promotion of the fortunate few favored by fate.
Of course there always were those who knew how to promote their own
ambitions, even while cloaking them in a patina of social and moral
respectability. There was never a shortage of people who were not beyond
subverting traditional values in their own rush to promote themselves. Indeed
in biblical parlance, the epitome of duplicitous? self-aggrandizement was Korah
ben Yizhar. Who was Korah and what did he want? He was Moses' first cousin, the
son of Yizhar, Moses' uncle. As the Hatam Sofer explains, following
the general approach of Ramban. Korah
was upset that Moses and his brother Aaron seemed to have garnered all the
power. Korah wanted to divide the authority equally
among the children of the three brothers of the earlier generation of the
family, Amram, Yizhar, and Hevron. Thus he would have Moses' puissance, and prestige,
pass to himself. But he realizes, like any ambitious man, that to further his
own interests he has got to cater to the selfish interests of others too--and
so he casts around for other equally self-interested men. Sure enough, he finds
more than a few allies: Datan and Aviram,
who want to lead the people back to
And so this coterie makes a play for power, but their justification comes in the form of moral righteousness: they claim to be motivated by a pure concern for the spiritual and political rights of the entire people:
And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said unto them: You two take too much power unto yourselves, for the whole community, every one of them. is Holy! God dwells among them! Why do you. Moses and Aaron. raise yourselves above the congregation of God?
Note, if you will, the transparent claim to represent the high moral ground! How clever, to advance themselves in the guise of white knights, whose exclusive concern is moral and far from mendacious! Here were self-proclaimed protagonists of ?people power?, yet, in reality, they were nothing more than single-minded opportunists, con-men who tried to exploit the people, and the system, for personal gain. It's an old story, playing in assorted versions, from Sinai all the way to Washington and Wall Street.
Now it's quite a distance from such stratospheric heights to the humdrum business of teaching one's children to be a mensch. And it might seem insignificant in the scheme of things to make a point of living quiet lives of moral rectitude even as we strive to find our place in the sun with security, recognition, and yes, even personal wealth. But, frankly, that is the Jewish way, the Yiddish way, the only way our forebears would have it. Sadly though, too many Jews, in their eagerness to find the good life in this golden medinah, cast out the redundant teachings of tradition, the tenets of our faith that would never tolerate deception or misrepresentation, so-called geneivat da'at or misleading behavior, and any form of self-aggrandizement at the expense of others. Armed with a smug moral certitude they push aside the same tradition that insisted for centuries that a Jew's word be more trustworthy than a signed contract, that exhorted, and sometimes even required, us to extend ourselves beyond the bare letter of the law, so that Jewish society would be filled with trust and not suspicion, sensitivity and not callous indifference.
As we stand at this junction toward the end of the 20th century, and contemplate the societal values that surround us, it is time that we as Jews made up our minds as to the moral environment in which we wish to live. As parents it is for us to urge, to reinforce, and to practice a higher standard of personal behavior, of adherence to the law of the land, and the law of tradition. As successful men and women we must act to the best of our ability to strengthen the resolve, and the means, of our schools and yeshivas. our camps and our supplementary schools, so that they can more effectively transmit the time-honored chesed Avraham, those compassionate actions in the tradition of Abraham the first Jew, to a new generation of Jews more in need of such teachings than any before, and in the process, to help raise the standards of ethical excellence not only for the Jewish community, but for our entire society, and indeed for all of mankind. That indeed, is the menschlig way!