I mentioned to a Christian friend of mine, yesterday, that I consider him to be a “mensch.” He was unaware of the term, and it made me wonder what other folks say about the becoming and being a mensch. I ran across Guy Kawasaki’s blog post on the topic, but to me, his post didn’t really provide the meaning that I’d look for.
First off, the word Mensch comes from the Yiddish and literally means “man.” The real meaning is deeper, because, to be a Mensch means to be a “Good Man.” The Oxford English Dictionary has an excellent definition:
In Jewish usage: a person of integrity or rectitude; a person who is morally just, honest, or honourable. [OED]
So how does someone go about becoming a Mensch, and remaining one? To me, there are a small number of rules:
1) Treat each person you meet in the manner that all people should be treated. This goes beyond treating someone the way you would want to be treated… the golden rule. I am a forgiving person. If someone is rude to me, I forgive them. But no one should be treated rudely. To treat others as they should be treated is a higher calling. It means to consider how all people should behave: to imagine the world that G_d would want us to live in, and then live there.
2) To be an example to others of how people should behave. This is a kind of humble leadership that implies that you behave as if a small child is watching you, learning from you, emulating you, each moment of the day. That doesn’t mean to be perfect, but it does mean to be self-aware. Do nothing that you wouldn’t want your son or daughter to be able to stand on stage, as a valedictorian, and cite as an example of your leadership.
3) To perform acts of love and kindness expecting no reward or recognition. This goes beyond anonymous donation to good charity (although that is a wonderful thing to do). This goes to everything from small kindnesses to your neighbors, to acts of random kindness to strangers, to moments of honest forgiveness to those that have wronged you.
4) Seek out those that you have wronged, and apologize. There is a ritual among Jews. Each year, as Yom Kippur approaches, each Jew is to actively seek out the people that he or she has wronged, apologize, and do their best to right the wrong. An excellent post on this topic is here. This is a huge part of being a mensch to me. This act is one of the most humbling things you can do. I recommend it to anyone, not just Jews. You will feel better for it.
5) To heal the world, deeply and meaningfully. There is an old tale of how the world was perfect once, but it has been cracked and broken. Each person has a responsibility to heal it, to find a place where your special gifts allow you to close a wound, right a wrong, or stand up for the weak, helpless, or powerless among us. Tikkun Olam. Heal the world. This does not mean that you have to help a thousand people. You can help one deeply troubled soul. Or you can teach, or feed, or clothe, or protect, or defend, or support. Do what your gifts allow you to do. Grow your gifts… nurture them… become the best you can be, so that you can heal the world in the best way that you can.
That, to me, is what it means to be a mensch. To be humble. Good. Worthy of emulation. Kind. Honest. Loving.
One day, I will die and be buried. The one thing I want someone to say of me, in honesty, is that I was a mensch.