Mentsch or Human Being?

“I get irritable on the road. I can’t control it – there is nothing I can do about it. That is the way I am and I have no way to change it.” So said to me this week a Jew whom I love very much, in the midst of a discussion that developed during a class. We spoke about the advantage of a human being over an animal, and that is one of the things that came up.

I too get annoyed on the road often, and I said to him: “I understand your anger on the road, but I am not willing to accept your belittling yourself. To me you are a human being and not an animal, and as such you have within you the basic ability to manage your feelings and instincts.”

The Admor Hazaken says in the Tanya that “The brain rules over the heart according to [a person’s] his inborn nature, for that is how man was created, that every man can, by the will in his brain, hold himself back and rule over the spirit of desire in his heart, so as not to fulfill his heart’s wishes in act, speech and thought, and to divert his mind completely from the desires of his heart, to the complete opposite.”

“You are a friend whom I appreciate very much,” I added. “I am not willing to let you make of yourself such a small creature, saying ‘I have no ability to change this.’ If you would say, ‘It’s hard for me,’ I would be the first to understand you, because I experience it in my life as well, but don’t lower yourself from the level of a human being to the level of an animal.”

What is a “mentsch”? when do we define a person as being a mentsch? Literally, mentsch means simply a human being, but this word connotes a person who behaves in an elevated way, doing somewhat more than what is expected of him, or, as explained in a dictionary I found through Google: “A person of integrity and honor, who exhibits humaneness in his relations with others.” That is the type of person we will point to and say, “He’s such a mentsch.”

But when a person slips and falls, when he is pulled by his whims and instincts, when an insult comes out of his mouth, when he gets angry and explodes, when he is badly hurt, when his feelings rule him, we will say: “Okay, what can we do? He is not an angel, he is just a human being.” And that is right and proper. That is the way we should indeed react.

But there is a difference – a very significant difference – between what we say before and what we say after. After the fact, it is okay to tell ourselves “I am human,” but before the act, before anything happens, before the fall, before the anger, before the insult escapes our lips, in my opinion, we should strive upwards, to our higher tendencies, and say “I will manage my behavior. I will know to stop and hold back at the right moment. I will be a mentsch.”

In the Ten Commandments, the Torah demands from us to live our greatness, to be elevated people. Do not covet, do not commit adultery, do not steal. These are demands that one cannot make of a bird or an animal, domestic or wild. But from a person, one can most definitely demand that.

So when we read the Ten Commandments tomorrow, before we look at them as obligations and demands, we should understand that here the Creator is determining and saying to each and every one of us: I see your greatness; I see your abilities. I see how man differs from animals.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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