The world is built upon ḥesed; You establish your faithfulness in the heavens. (Psalm 89:3)
Kindness and Covenant, or Zei a Mensch
Deuteronomy consists of a series of speeches that Moses gives to the assembled Israelites. It’s his last chance to teach, exhort, admonish, and encourage his people to keep the covenant, follow the mitzvot, and walk in God’s ways. We find many examples in today’s parashah, Eikev, but I’m going to focus on just one, the very first verse of the parashah.
If you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will keep in mind the covenant (brit) and the loving kindness (ḥesed) with which He made an oath to your fathers. He will favor you and bless you and multiply you. (Deut. 7:12)
The JPS commentary explains it, “By redeeming the Exodus generation God has fulfilled His oaths to the patriarchs. If the present generation obeys His commandments, He will fulfill those oaths on its behalf as well.”
But the Rabbis saw in the words brit v’ḥesed a deeper meaning.
A. It was taught: God gave three good gifts to Israel: They are merciful/compassionate people (raḥmanim), they are people who have a sense of shame (baishanim), and they are people who act with kindness (gomlei ḥesed). Whence do we know that they are compassionate? From [God will] show compassion to you (Deut. 30:3). [This was understood to imply that God will have compassion on those who show compassion to others.] Whence do we know that they are people who have a sense of shame? From Moses answered the people [at Mt. Sinai], “Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray.” [Implying that if you have yir’at shamayim, reverence for God, you will have a sense of shame, an active conscience.] (Ex. 20:17) Whence do we know that they are people who act with kindness? From If you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will keep in mind the covenant (brit) and the loving kindness (ḥesed) with which He made an oath to your fathers. (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 4:1)
The Torah Temimah interprets this to mean that God will treat us with ḥesed when we act with ḥesed. The overall point here is that these are three salient, essential Jewish traits: compassion, moral sensitivity, and acting with kindness. And they interact: compassion is the sense of fellow-feeling, of empathy and sympathy. Moral sensitivity means that we are alert to the ethical effects of our actions. And gemilut ḥesed means that we don’t just have these feelings and discernments, but we act on them. These are the touchstone of what it means to be a Jew.
That is why the Rabbis indulge with a bit of hyperbole:
B. Anyone who has compassion for God’s creatures, it is known that he is of the descendants of Abraham, our father. (Beitzah 32b)
In other words, you can trace your genealogy back a hundred generations, but if you aren’t compassionate, you are not acting like a Jew. There are two Yiddish phrases that encapsulate this: One is zei a mensch, which literally translates as “be a man,” but really means, “act like a decent person; don’t be a jerk.” Leo Rosten explains, “The key to being ‘a real mensch’ is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.”
The other is Es passt nicht – “that’s not the way a person should go”—it’s not becoming. It’s not the proper thing for a Jew to do.
This is the higher purpose of the Torah: to teach us to be people of compassion, moral sensitivity, and active kindness. In fact, there are many midrashim where God sets the example.
C. Rabbi Samlai taught: With regard to the Torah, its beginning is an act of kindness and its end is an act of kindness. Its beginning is an act of kindness, as it is written: And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them (Genesis 3:21). And its end is an act of kindness, as it is written: And he [Moses] was buried in the valley in the land of Moab (Deuteronomy 34:6). (Sotah 14a)
These Divine models are embedded in our siddur’s daily reminders. In the morning blessings we praise God as malbish arumim, the one who clothes the naked. And we find a Rabbinic text that lists parade examples of gemilut ḥesed, including, attending the dead.
I think of these texts often because there are days when I am just overwhelmed by the cruelty of the world: great cruelties like violence and oppression, and the persistence of slavery and human trafficking, and petty cruelties like the humiliations of reality television and the excremental tide of verbal abuse on the internet. Whatever Torah I have absorbed cries out es past nicht, this is unseemly. I want to shake the world and say zei a mensch—be human.
That leads me to my last text. When I first saw this, I remembered that gever in Israeli slang means a macho man. But that is not the Jewish image of manhood, nor does it apply only to men.
D. Those who interpret the Torah by its hidden meanings have found these three good qualities symbolized by the word gever (man, hero):
Gimel — gomlei ḥasadim— those who act with loving kindness.
Bet — baishanim —those with a sense of shame.
Reish — raḥmanim — those with mercy/compassion.
(Min Hatorah, Rabbi Mordecai Hacohen)
In other words, be a mensch, be compassionate, be ethically sensitive and be actively kind. Be God’s image in thought, word, and deed. That’s what it means to be a Jew—not Yiddish slang, not lox and bagels, not our genealogy—but menschlichkeit.
This is my last d’rashah here at Shearith Israel. Helen and I took a leap of faith in coming here, and you took a similar leap in making me your Transitional Senior Rabbi. One of the most important reasons for our decision was the warmth and menschlichkeit we experienced when we came here last July, the way the officers cared for each other and for the congregation, the beautiful souls of Rabbis Roffman and Wallach, and the dedication and kindness of Cantor Zhrebker and Avi Mitzner and the entire staff. We felt the warmth and welcome of so many members the night I interviewed, and so we took the leap.
Our year here validated our intuition. People have been gracious and kind. We saw that Shearith is indeed a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. We were touched that so many people offered us their friendship though they knew we were transients. We were also impressed by Shearith’s vast intertwined multi-generation network of friendship and family.
Being a large institution with a building and a budget can sometimes obscure that ultimately a shul is a community, its people. Shearith has challenges ahead, as do all synagogues, but with kindness and compassion for each other, and the menschlich leadership of Rabbi Sunshine, you will find your way, as Shearith always has through its long history. It has been a privilege to serve you, and we will always consider this our second home. Thank you, and not shalom, but l’hitraot.