Before I met Ronald Pies, M.D., professor of psychiatry and lecturer on bioethics and humanities at SUNY Upstate Medical University and professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, I did not know what a mensch was. I figured it has something to do with a short person.
However, for Christmas this year I received a signed copy of Pies’s newest book, “Becoming a Mensch: Timeless Talmudic Ethics for Everyone,” and I decided that I would like to become a mensch, much like Dr. Pies, for whom I have the utmost respect.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines mensch as “a person having admirable characteristics, such as fortitude and firmness of purpose.” His book is a fascinating collection of personal case histories, often based on composites of various individuals he has treated professionally. These modern-day vignettes teach us the value of this ancient wisdom today.
I have gone through his book and pulled my favorite quotes. But I urge you to pick up a copy of his book if you’d like to learn how the Torah and the Talmud might help us on our journey to mental health.
On Kindness and Compassion:
What do we live for if it is not to make life less difficult for each other? -George Eliot
When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people. -Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Without kindness and compassion, no matter what else you do in life, you are not a mensch, and you are not like a worthy and decent human being. -Ronald Pies
On Generosity and Charity:
If someone comes to you and asks your help, you shall not turn him off with pious words, saying, “Have faith and take your troubles to God!” You shall act as if there were no God, as if there were only one person in all the world who could help this man–only yourself. -Rabbi Moshe Lieb of Sasov, quoted by Martin Buber
On Self-Mastery and Self-Discipline:
Ben Zoma says: Who is mighty? One who conquers one’s passions, as it is said: “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one who rules over one’s spirit is better than one who conquers a city.” -Proverbs 16:32
The more mental training man has, the less affected he will be by luck or misfortune. He will not get excited over a very fortunate event and will not exaggerate its value. Likewise, if one meets disaster, he will not be disturbed and aggrieved, but will bear it valiantly. -Maimonides
On Humility and Flexibility:
A person should always be gentle and flexible like a read [in his relationships with others] and never hard and unyielding like a cedar tree. -Taanit
On Justice and Retribution:
Where there is harsh justice there is no kindness, and where there is kindness there is no harsh justice! -Sanhedrin
Respect for Self and Others:
Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. -Jerusalem Talmud
On Attentive Listening and Understanding:
Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live. -Isaiah 55:3
On Caution and Prudence:
I, Wisdom, live with Prudence … –Proverbs 8:12
A learned person … does not answer impetuously. -Pirke Avot 5:9
On Honesty and Integrity:
When a person is brought into the heavenly Court of Judgment, he is asked: Did you deal honestly? -Shabbat 31a
On Gratitude and Contentedness:
Ben Zoma says: … Who is rich? One who rejoices in one’s portion … –Pirke Avot 4:1
On Politeness and Tact:
With good manners, you can open any door. -Yiddish proverb