July 25, 2024
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Seven Steps to Mentschhood

Step # 5, Part 1

‘ועשית הישר והטוב בעיני ה

“You shall do what is right and what is good in the eyes of Hashem…”

ועשית הישר והטוב בעיני ה’,למען ייטב לך ובאת וירשת את הארץ הטובה אשר נשבע ה’ לאבתיך.ך

“You shall do what is right and what is good in the eyes of Hashem, so that it will be good for you, and you will possess the good land that Hashem swore to give to your forefathers.” (Devarim 6:18)

It’s time to move on to Step # 5. In keeping with the challenge of mentschhood, this next step is increasing in difficulty. Since we have learned which behaviors are right and which are wrong, we turn our attention to a greater challenge: knowing when to do more for someone than we need to.

What We Learn from Our Rabbis

In the above passage, our pasuk tells us that if we follow Hashem’s commandments by doing what is right and what is good, Hashem will bless us, along with the land He promised to our forefathers. Surely, if a person does the right thing and follows the Torah and Hashem’s commandments, his actions will automatically be right and good. Why, then, are we asked to do what is good after we have already been told to keep the Torah?

The Ramban answers that the Torah cannot list every possible behavior that may arise among people. He notes that the Torah mentions several specific mitzvot regarding our obligations toward our fellow man (mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro). For example, we are taught, לא תקלל חרש, do not curse the deaf (Step #3), and מפני שיבה תקום (rise before an old person, Vayikra 19:30). Therefore, the Torah provides us with this guideline: just as one is taught to behave well in these specified instances, so shall a person behave in all of his interactions with people.

Lifnim Mishurat Hadin, לפנים משורת הדין

The second and related lesson the Ramban lists is the concept of lifnim mishurat hadin, going beyond what the law dictates. The Torah gives us many specific details of how the law requires us to behave. Yet, there are times when a good person is motivated to do more than the law asks of us. The most cited example of this concept in the Talmud is found in Baba Metzia, 83a:

Some porters [negligently] broke a barrel of wine belonging to Raba Bar Bar Channah. Thereupon, he seized their garments, so they went to complain to Rav. “Return the garment,” he [Rav] ordered. “Is that the law?” he [Raba] inquired. “Yes,” he [Rav] responded, “that you shall walk in the way of good people” (Mishlei 2:20).

Their garments having been returned, they observed, “We are poor men, and have worked all day and are hungry. Are we to get nothing?” “Go and pay them,” Rav ordered. “Is that the law?” he asked. “Yes,” he responded, “ʻand keep the path of the righteous’” (Mishlei 2:21).

The Talmud is teaching us that if a worker breaks his employer’s merchandise, the law allows the owner to withhold the employee’s wages. Yet, Rav instructs Raba Bar Bar Channah to refrain from punishing them despite the loss of merchandise, because he should go beyond what the law requires. He must act lifnim mishurat hadin.

The Talmud feels so strongly about this that elsewhere in Baba Metzia, 30b, it says that Yerushalayim was destroyed because its courts judged according to the strict letter of the law and not lifnim mishurat hadin.

This is the lesson of Step #5: You shall do what is “right” (yashar), and what is “good” (tov)—beyond what is right.

The following is a story about a man whom I greatly admire:

On December 11, 1995, a fire broke out at the Malden Mills textile factory in Malden, Massachusetts. The owner, Aaron Feuerstein, was summoned to the factory, where he saw nearly his entire complex of buildings engulfed in flames. Aaron began to think of what to do next. As a 70-year-old, he could simply retire on whatever reimbursement he would receive from the insurance company; he had no legal obligation to do more. However, more than his own loss was on his mind. He was thinking of his 1,400 employees who would be out of work, especially during their approaching holiday season.

Aaron Feuerstein, an Orthodox Jew, recalled the teachings of his father from Pirkei Avot: “In a place where there is no man, do everything in your power to be one.” Fortified with the teachings of his faith, Aaron Feuerstein decided not only to rebuild his factory, but also to pay his workers their full wages until the factory resumed production.

Aaron Feuerstein’s behavior made headlines around the world. He was invited by President Clinton to join him at his State of the Union Address, where Aaron was given a standing ovation by both Houses of Congress. His behavior was recognized by the Jewish community as that of a true kiddush Hashem (bringing praise of Hashem from the general public). One newspaper headline declared, “All it takes to be a CEO: be a mentsch.”

In one of his numerous television interviews, Mr. Feuerstein was asked what guided his behavior. He answered that a person must always do “what is right and what is good.”

Lessons From the Story

Aaron Feuerstein would have been well within the bounds of appropriate behavior if he had closed Malden Mills for good and offered no compensation to his employees. By putting his employees’ interests ahead of his own, he too, was acting lifnim mishurat hadin. He went from doing the right thing to doing what we can call the “better-than-right thing.” In so doing he created a rare, world-wide kiddush Hashem. Many people said to themselves, “Look at how an observant Jew behaves.”

Stanley Fischman is currently the supervisor of general studies instruction at the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, NJ. He was a yeshiva elementary principal for 35 years, and also served as director of general studies at Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus. Recently he celebrated his 50th anniversary of educating Jewish children. He is the author of “Seven Steps to Mentschhood: How to Help Your Child Become a Mentsch.”

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