Being a Mensch
April Dixon | February 1, 2019
Endow the king with your justice, O God,
the royal son with your righteousness.
May he judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice. — Psalm 72:1–2
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other African-American leaders began their heroic march for civil rights and fight for justice, the Jewish community stood side-by-side on the frontlines of faith. As we honor Dr. King’s legacy this month, let Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s reflections on justice inspire and encourage you.
For more on the historic and spiritual bonds between the African-American and Jewish community, download our complimentary booklet here.
Psalm 72 is widely believed to be King David’s last. The final line reads “this concludes the prayers of David son of Jesse.” The theme of this psalm is a prayer for Solomon, King David’s son, who would succeed him. It is a moving account of everything the psalmist wished for his child. It speaks volumes about what is most important in life.
What do you wish for your children and loved ones? Most of us would say things like health, wealth, happiness, and the like. What did the psalmist ask for? The first thing he prayed for is to “endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice.” Translate: “Let my son know right from wrong and may he always do the right thing.” Judaism has invented a one-word term for this trait. It’s called being a mensch.
The word “mensch” means to be a person with integrity. A decent human being. You know, the kind who lets you cut in front of him in traffic or goes out of her way to return a lost wallet with every dollar still inside. A mensch is humble and honest. He tries his best to do the right thing all of the time. When she messes up, she feels bad about it and tries to make things right again.
King David is teaching us that the most important thing in life is to be a mensch. In fact, there’s an expression in Judaism that says “derech eretz kadma l’torah,” “good character comes before Torah.” In other words, being a mensch is even more important than being spiritual. It’s the pre-requisite! You cannot have a good relationship with God if you do not have a good relationship with His children.
A person may study the Word of God and be able to quote verses by heart, but if he can’t apply them to his life, it’s not worth very much. When King David prayed for his son’s future, he recognized that more important than everything King Solomon would have or do, was the kind of person he would be. First, he must be a mensch. Everything else will follow.
Imagine how the world might be different if all parents gave this message to their children: Sweetheart, be a lawyer or a street cleaner, be rich or be poor, be bookish or artistic. Be whatever you want – as long as you are a mensch!
Health, wealth, and happiness are all things that we want to have. But a mensch is who we need to be first.
Download your complimentary copy of our booklet, On the Frontlines of Faith, which explores the historic and spiritual bond between the African-American and Jewish communities during the Civil Rights Movement.