Words matter: In order to be a mensch, be a mentor

Dr. Lawrence Layfer

By Lawrence F. Layfer, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Tazria-Metzora – Leviticus 12:1-15:33

 “Hillel said…in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man”…Pirke Avot 2:6

This week’s double Torah portion of Tazria/Metzorah tries to explain the difficult concept of “Biblical leprosy.” Unlike the physical disease of the same name, this “leprosy” is a spiritual affliction, self-imposed through the habit of speaking ill of others, for the rabbis consider the illness to be a punishment for “Lashon Hara,” the evil tongue. For one who refrains, Psalm 34 offers the promise of long days of “seeing good.” However, silence is not the ideal in order to comply. Genesis teaches that words were how the Universe was created. Speech is a gift to us, to be used, as the Psalm continues, to seek and even actively pursue peace, best accomplished through our active communication with others.

Rabbi Sacks sees such use of speech in this way: “language in Judaism is the basis of creation, revelation and the moral life. It is the air we breathe as social beings. Judaism emerged as an answer to a series of questions: how can finite human beings be connected to an infinite G-d? How can they be connected to one another? How can there be cooperation, collaboration, collective action, families, and a nation, without the coercive use of power? How can we form relationships of trust?… the answer is through words, words that communicate, words that bind, words that honor the Divine other in the human other…never take language lightly, implies the Torah, for it was through language that G-d created the natural world, and through language that we create and sustain our social world. It is as essential to our survival as the air we breathe.”

This Shabbos finds us in the time of the Omer counting, the days between Passover and Shavuot, from the leaving Egypt to arriving at Mt. Sinai. It is traditional during these days to read from the small Talmud volume of “Pirke Avot,” the Ethics of the Fathers, one of its six chapters each of the Sabbaths between the holidays. Perhaps we do this to focus on the tractates’ expectations of behavior towards each other as a preparation for the commemoration of receiving Torah on the festival. This week, the second Sabbath, we find ourselves in chapter two, with Hillel’s adjuration that “in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” The classic commentators suggest we “step up to the plate” when the absence of leadership is found, for as Rabbi Beryl Wein suggests: “Judaism believes that a few good people can save humankind.”  

Few of us will be called on to be national leaders facing crises of historic proportions. To apply Hillel’s advice to most of us, we need to broaden the interpretation. Dr. Richard Panush, a physician administrator and teacher, writing in a medical trade journal, considered Hillel’s statement this way: “In a place where there is no man (of integrity), strive to be one” is a loose translation of Talmud Avot 2:6. I always interpreted this as an exhortation to character, decency, morality, high ethical standards, and and menschlichkeit, professionalism in medical terms.” So perhaps Hillel is exhorting each of us to lead by example, in other words, to be a mentor.

Speech can help foster an atmosphere where mentoring can thrive. Supportive words offered in an encouraging and useful tone from one whose manner reflects the message are key. In Pirke Avot’s (4:15) Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua teaches to: “treat your students as if they were your colleagues and your colleagues as if they were your teachers.”

Rabbi Elazar’s words are not limited to the student/teacher interaction, but also include all our personal and professional relationships, and are not limited to the spoken word only. He calls upon us to fill all our relationships with bilateral respect, most manifest by the way our words represent this intent. In fostering such an environment a person becomes a mentor, one that that others gravitate towards. If you are fortunate enough to find such people, stay as near as you can. You may soon find yourself incorporating their traits into your own. Expect and accept nothing less from yourself and from those around you, and do not tolerate deviations in any form it may appear.

Dr, Panush suggests how effective such respect can be on a community with this story: “a once grand monastery fell upon hard times. In desperation, the Abbot consulted with his friend, a rabbi from a nearby town. After reflecting on the dilemma, the rabbi told his colleague that he had no answers or suggestions. He added, though, that one among the monks was the Messiah. The Abbot returned with this peculiar message. The monks tried to understand. Could one among them be the Messiah? They began, slowly but surely, to treat one another, and themselves, with more respect, for perhaps one of them was the Messiah. Gradually, the monastery transformed, flourished, and again became a beacon for others. Perhaps this is where we need to begin, cherishing everyone’s unique individuality, remembering that we are all deserving of respect.” As he says, the concept generalizes to all human relations.  

Dr. Lawrence Layfer is Emeritus Professor at Rush Medical College and former Chair of Medicine at NorthShore-Skokie.

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