The Characteristics of a Mensch

Yitro — Exodus 18:1-20:23

By David Curzon

Published February 09, 2007, issue of February 09, 2007.
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This week’s portion contains the revelation on Sinai and the Ten Commandments, but it starts with Jethro, the Midianite priest who was the father-in-law of Moses, and as a consequence is named after Jethro. Why has the rabbinic tradition organized the reading in this way? To my mind, we are being told to pay close attention to Jethro’s character, and to take as much notice of him as Moses did when Jethro was giving him advice on how to govern: “So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he had said.” (Exodus 18:24) A few verses further on, in Exodus 19:5, God is telling the Israelites through Moses to hearken (same verb in the Hebrew) to His voice and in effect do all He says and be “a kingdom of priests.” It’s hard to escape the implication that the priest Jethro is a model, a human embodiment of the intent of the commandments given on Sinai.

Jethro is presented in chapter 18 of Exodus as a person who knows what to do in practical circumstances. What are the characteristics of such a mensch, a person whose advice you should “hearken” to and act on? Since Jethro was not an Israelite, we are led to look outside our own tradition in order to find the characteristics of a mensch. As it happens, the Analects of Confucius contains many sayings concerned with the problem of how to recognize a mensch when you come across one. The Analects are a natural complement to this week’s portion because, as Voltaire is reputed to have said: “I admire Confucius. He is the first person who did not receive a divine inspiration.”

Confucius (551-479 BCE, according to Chinese tradition) was a true mensch, as the Confucian version of the Golden Rule, formulated several hundred years before Hillel, shows: “Tzu-Kung said, What I do not want others to do to me, I have no desire to do to others. The Master said, Oh Ssu! You have not quite got to that point yet.” (Book V, #11) Another favorite of mine: “Chi Wen Tzu used to think three times before acting. The Master, hearing of it, said, Twice is quite enough.” (Book V, #19)

Here are some of the sayings in which Confucius tried to characterize the type of person who was (in Arthur Waley’s translation) a true “gentleman,” and I will call a “mensch.” The Master said, A mensch is not an implement. (Book II, #12) In other words, he is not, in Waley’s annotation, “a specialist, a tool used for a special purpose. He need only have general, moral qualifications.”

Ssu-ma Niu asked about the meaning of the term mensch. The Master said, The mensch neither grieves nor fears. Ssu-ma Niu said, So that is what is meant by being a mensch —neither to grieve nor to fear? The Master said, On looking within himself he finds no taint; so why should he either grieve or fear? (Book XII, #4)

The Master said, The true mensch is conciliatory but not accommodating. (Book XIII, #23)

The Master said, A mensch is proud, but not quarrelsome, allies himself with individuals, but not parties. (Book XV, #21) James Legge translates: “dignified, but does not wrangle. He is sociable, but not a partisan.”

Master K’ung said, The mensch has nine cares. In seeing, he is careful to see clearly; in hearing, he is careful to hear distinctly; in his looks, he is careful to be kindly; in his manner to be respectful; in his words to be loyal; in his work to be diligent. When in doubt he is careful to ask for information; when angry he has care for the consequences, and when he sees a chance of gain, he thinks carefully whether the pursuit of it would be consonant with the Right. (Book XVI, #10)

The Master said, A mensch can be bounteous without extravagance, can get work out of people without arousing resentment, has longings but is never covetous, is proud but never insolent, inspires awe but is never ferocious. (Book XX, #2)Or, as Leo Rosten explained in “The Joys of Yiddish” (Pocket Books, 1970), using a different spelling for the key word: “To be a mensh has nothing to do with success, wealth, status. A judge can be a zhlob; a millionaire can be a momzer; a professor can be a schlemiel; a doctor can be a klutz; a lawyer a buvlon. The key to being ‘a real mensh’ is nothing less than — character: rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous. Many a poor man, many an ignorant man, is a mensh.”

And if you meet such a person, then, like Moses, you should hearken to that voice.

David Curzon is a contributing editor at the Forward.

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