The most important thing in life is to be a “mensch”–a decent human being. Once you’ve accomplished this, you’ve accomplished the everything!
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This week’s Torah portion is “Yitro” (Exodus 18:1–20:23) and it is named after Moses’ father-in-law, often referred to as “Jethro” in English. It is perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring Torah portions owing to the fact that it contains the Revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments.
Indeed, it is noted that God chose to include the episode of the Ten Commandments in a Torah portion named after a non-Jew in order to teach us that all people are special in God’s eyes and can achieve closeness with Him.
In addition to the direct command to “Honor your father and mother” as is written in the Ten Commandments, the relationship that Moses maintained with Jethro is meant to teach us that there is also an obligation to honor one’s father- and mother-in-law!
The meeting between Moses and Jethro contains a mysterious verse that is the subject of varying interpretations. The Torah tells us that when Jethro arrived to where the Jewish people were encamped around Mt. Sinai, “Moses went out to greet his father-in-law, and he bowed and he kissed him, and they inquired one man to another.” (Ex. 18:7)
The famous commentator Rashi, among others, points out that this verse is very unclear. Who bowed to whom? Who kissed whom? It is unclear to whom the “he” in the verse refers, and it is even more unclear in the Hebrew original!
Rashi takes a clue from the Hebrew word “ish.” It is translated here as “he,” though it truly means “the man.”
Rashi says that it was Moses who initiated the bowing and the kissing. How does Rashi derive this? He takes it from a different precedent in scripture where Moses is called “ish” – “the man.” (Numbers 12:3) Hence, Rashi puts “two and two together” and teaches that if the word “man” in the passage in the Book of Numbers refers to Moses, then when the verse says “the man” in the Book of Exodus, it must also refer to Moses. Case closed.
But the question is asked: Why didn’t the Torah tell us directly that it was Moses who bowed and kissed Jethro? Why must we figure it out in such a roundabout way?
It is explained that no matter how great Moses was, no matter what he accomplished, no matter his level of prophecy, the most important attribute of Moses was that he was “a man” – what we call “a mensch.” One who is not a mensch is not worthy of respect no matter what he accomplishes.
On the other hand, one who is a mensch is one who is deserving of honor regardless of anything else. Noah is similarly referred to a “ish.” Even though Noah was the greatest prophet of his day, the Torah also tells us that he was an “ish” – “a man,” a mensch.
The message is clear. The most important thing in life is to be a mensch – a decent human being. Once you’ve accomplished this, you’ve accomplished everything, and any other accomplishments come in second.
For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah reading, click on the links below.
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