On a Mensch You Can Rely!

Getting it done, not for the honour

By: Rabbi Yossy Goldman

“Sadly, too many of those volunteering to serve the community are themselves less than competent.”

So, what’s the difference between a shlemiel and a shlemazel? Everyone knows the shlemiel is the inept fool who never fails to spill the soup. And the shlemazel? Why, he’s the born loser who, somehow, always gets the soup spilled on his lap. And then there’s the nudnik who insists on knowing what kind of soup it was, but that’s for a different essay.

One thing is for sure though; a real mensch is neither a shlemiel nor a shlemazel…nor a nudnik! To be worthy of the exalted title of a mensch, one must firstly be independent, capable, and competent. He must be able to stand on his own two feet. If we are expecting our mensch to add value to society, if he is to look after his family as well as his community, surely, he must first be able to look after himself. You cannot hope to save a drowning man if you yourself cannot swim. So, at the outset let it be stated that a mensch is a successful person. Successful doesn’t necessarily mean rich. If he is able to maintain his own independence without becoming a drain on others, he or she qualifies.

In addition to being independent, a real mensch is also responsible and reliable. He or she is a competent person. He doesn’t have to be exceptionally talented, but he does have to be responsible. You should be able to depend on her to get the job done and to deliver on her promises.

This 87-year-old Jew, his back bent, eyeglasses on the tip of his nose, hobbles into the recruitment office at NASA, the United States’ Space Programme in Cape Canaveral. “Can I help you?” asks the curious young lady at the desk. “Yes, I came about the advertisement you had in the newspaper. I believe you are looking for an astronaut to fly in the next space shuttle,” says the old man. “Sir,” smiles the girl, “the ad said we were looking for a young, experienced pilot in the peak of fitness and with perfect eyesight.” “Yes,” says the old man, “I just came by to tell you that on me you shouldn’t rely.”

But on a mensch, you can rely.

And there are no excuses. Some people have an excuse for everything under the sun. They never get anything done but there’s always an explanation. It was his fault, her fault; it was the weather, the traffic, or any convoluted set of unfortunate circumstances. If they would only use their creativity and fertile imaginations to do something constructive instead of rationalising their failures, they could achieve great things. With all their inventive excuses, they could have earned a PhD in Philosophy. But at the end of the day, the job didn’t get done. A true mensch, however, does get the job done.

I’ve often wondered what it is about organisational life that somehow attracts a particular sort of nudnik. You know the type. The one who loves to hear the sound of his own voice at a conference or committee meeting and is always full of eitzos – advice, ideas, and suggestions – that will effectively deal with every issue on the agenda. Usually, they are grand concepts that are totally impractical, and will simply never get off the ground.

There seems to be ample anecdotal evidence that, sadly, too many of those volunteering for community service are themselves less than competent. They haven’t particularly made a success of their business lives, or their family lives, and so they go out to solve the problems of the world. Is it an attempt to compensate for their own inadequacies at work or at home? Is that why people should be joining Jewish organisations, or shul committees?

Every community requires people who are competent, independent, successful, and honourable, who don’t have a need for receiving recognition for their good work. The ideal volunteers are those who must be persuaded, almost have their arms twisted, to get involved and give of their time and talents to a worthy cause. They mustn’t need it emotionally to help them fill a void in their own lives. Yes, of course, charity work and a spirit of volunteerism do provide inner satisfaction and contentment. That is absolutely true. But the volunteer’s motivation should be to do good, not to feel good.

It reminds me of the story of the fellow who traveled to another city to visit his cousin Chaim Yankel who was the gabbai of the local shul. As it was before the invention of GPS technology, he needed to ask for directions to get to his cousin’s house. He asked the first person he sees in the town where Chaim Yankel the gabbai lives. “Chaim Yankel, that good for nothing? Go two blocks down and then make a left.” But he still can’t find the house so he asks another resident. “Chaim Yankel, the horse thief? You’re almost there. Just follow this street and you’ll find the house.” Somehow, he struggles to find the right address and he stops a third fellow for help. “Chaim Yankel, that liar, that cheat, why would you want to see him?! His house is just around the corner. You can’t miss it.” Finally, he finds the house and Cousin Chaim Yankel gives him a hearty welcome. “Gee, Chaim Yankel, this job of yours as gabbai must be a very well-paying position, I imagine. Is that right?” “Where from? I don’t get paid a penny for being gabbai.” “Really? Why then do you do it?” “Why, for the honour, of course.”

If we do it for honour, for our own ego, for the yichus, or the imaginary status we assume an important communal position might bring us, then we are bound to be disappointed. All too often, those yichus-seekers lose the respect of the very people they set out to serve. And then, their ambitions unfulfilled, they are left feeling resentful and disillusioned. If we are giving to the community to fulfill our own inner needs or a vacuum in our own lives, then we are giving for the wrong reasons. That type of giving is really taking. We aren’t really seeking the welfare of the communal cause; we are looking to get something out of it ourselves. We want a return, or a kickback.

The capable, competent, independent human being doesn’t need yichus, or external status of any kind to validate his self-worth. That’s why the true mensch is a giver not a taker. He stands tall on his own and is, therefore, ideally equipped to serve others. I learned that a true mensch should not be taken for granted. Among many other qualities, he or she is independent, responsible, capable, reliable, and absolutely dependable.

G-d bless our mensch.

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