Sometimes the instructions for how to be a mensch seem counterintuitive. Let me explain. We have all seen the ubiquitous bumper sticker that says,”Practice random acts of kindness,” or something to that effect. But as Jews, we do not practice random acts. Rather, we follow the commandment of gemilut hasadim, doing acts of loving kindness, in a decidedly non-random way – because there is a difference between being kind and being nice.
There are plenty of people who have mastered the social skill of being “nice.” They say the right things make the right gestures. They have all of the social niceties that make people enjoy being around them. And yet, sometimes these same people – people who, to quote my husband, can, “work a driveway” – may not be truly kind. One of my kids did not always act nice when he was very small. He struggled with social skills, impulse control, and didn’t always get points for delivery. But he is and was truly one of the kindest people I have ever met.
We have all met that nice person who stabs us in the back. A mensch has a standard of decency that is not contingent on their nature or their nurture. They do what’s right because there is a difference between doing what’s actually right rather than what feels right. What feels right is dependent on our mood, our nature, the values of our family of origin, and even what our culture or society values. It is, in that regard, subjective to our own perceptions.
Doing what’s right is dependent on how God defines what is right. Even if we are not “feeling it,” we must do what is right anyway. This is why we study the Torah, the guidebook on mensch-y behavior. There must be a moral bottom line that is non-contingent and that can only come from our Creator, who has no needs and only wants us to maximize our potential to be human, to be a mensch!
In Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) it says, “One who acts with compassion when firmness is called for will eventually act with cruelty when compassion is needed.”
What on earth does this mean?
Years ago, I read a story about a woman who was in a car accident due to drunk driving. She begged the police officer to be kind to her and not to report her toxicology, to let her keep her keys and drive the three blocks home. She told him, “You know my father. He is ill and this will make him so upset. I had only two beers.” He agreed to be “nice” and he let her go. Not long after, she suffered another accident while driving under the influence and was disfigured facially despite many plastic surgeries. In hindsight, she understood that the officer’s kindness was not kindness at all.
For the people pleasers among us, it is often easier to practice random acts of kindness than carefully thought out and actualized ones. As King Solomon reminds us, and as the musician Nick Lowe sings, “You’ve got to be cruel to be kind in the right measures.” There is nothing spiritually elevated about thoughtless kindnesses that can lead to cruel consequences. This means that enabling is not loving.
In Alcoholic Anonymous, they have a wonderful phrase, “What is detachment and what is loving detachment? Detachment is when your spouse comes home and passes out drunk on the kitchen floor. Detachment is leaving them there. Loving detachment is covering them with a blanket and leaving them there. Because a human being who is enabled could deny the state of their behavior and avoid consequences that might serve to heal them. But a human being who is lovingly left to suffer the consequences of their behavior can ‘hit their own bottom.’” And they can rise from that clarity!
One of the tricks to becoming a mensch through gemilut hasadim can be found in our morning prayers, in a segment from the Talmud. It actually includes the commandment for acts of kindness along with examples of what constitutes mensch-y behavior as commanded by our Creator. It shares, “These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principal remains intact for him in the World to Come.They are: the honor due to father and mother, acts of kindness, early attendance at the house of study morning and evening, hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, providing for a bride, escorting the dead, absorption in prayer, bringing peace between man and his fellow, and the study of Torah is equivalent to them all!” (Talmud Shabbos 127a)
An excellent place to start is to study each of those top ten points and to find ways to develop your kindness. As for our children, we can teach them that these are commandments, not simple social niceties so that they can be on the lookout for opportunities to practice focused acts of kindness. As a family, you can sit down and make a chart for each of these acts and come up with examples of what it might look like to fulfil them.
One wonderful way to reinforce the pleasure of keeping this commandment is to make it possible for kids to feel all the sweet fruits of their effort through positive and supportive social responses. When what is right starts to feel right, when there is a reward of pleasant feelings as a result of being a mensch, that neural pathway deepens. It’s Pavlovian. It’s powerful!
Take your kids to the store and go shopping together. You are going to make a chesed kit for their backpacks. Ask them what they think other kids might need over the course of their days. For the youngest ones, you might purchase cool Band-Aids to offer their friends for their boo-boos, extra pencils for those who lost theirs, and even snacks for someone who forgot their lunch. For the older ones, extra bus tickets, change, pain relief tablets, gum, or breath mints are handy. The idea is for your child to be the person who has thought about what others might need and can help in a pinch.
It takes preplanning and anticipation to truly maximize our mensch-y behavior. Then, as in the commandment of rodef shalom, chasing peace we can also be prepared for and even pursue acts of kindness, And that both feels nice and is kind. It’s a win win!