There is a powerful tale found in the Palestinian Talmud, Tractate Baba Metzia (2:5), that has much to teach us about the quest for and cultivation of Mensclichkeit – “transcendent humanity” – which I believe is the primary purpose of the month of Elul and the Yamim Noraim, our upcoming Days of Awe.
Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach was a great sage of the Rabbinic period and even served as the Nasi (ranking member) of the Sanhedrin. He was truly a Yireh Shamayim, a God fearing person, who devoted his life to studying and teaching Torah. Though he had many students and admirers, Rabbi Shimon refused to accept compensation for his Holy Service. Rather, he eked out a paltry living by producing ink. Tradition has it that he would rise early in the morning, head to the forest, gather chestnuts and carry them on his back, to his home. Out of these chestnuts he would make ink, sell it in the market, and sustain his family.
Rabbi Shimon though poor, had but one regret; that he wasted too much precious time carrying the loads of chestnuts from the woods to his home. So, he decided to sell all of his earthly possessions and buy a mule to enable him to complete his work more efficiently. When he brought the mule home, his students went out to see it. They stroked, petted and admired the animal who would be of such great service to their revered Master. Suddenly, one of the students discovered – hanging down from the beast’s neck and hidden in a small pouch, a precious stone. The students rushed into the Rabbi’s house. “God’s name be praised!” they exclaimed. “God has rewarded your piety Master. You are now a wealthy man! Our beloved teacher shall know no more want!”
They showed him the precious gem, but Rabbi Shimon did not share their excitement. “God forbid, that I take this diamond,” he said. “I only bought a mule from that Ishmaelite in the Shuk. This diamond does not belong to me. Do you think that Shimon Ben Shetach is a boor – one who would take what is not rightfully his?”
Whereupon Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach ran back to the market in search of the Ishmaelite who sold him the mule. He found the merchant and returned to him the precious stone. The Ishmaelite was amazed at such unheard of honesty and integrity. “Blessed be the God of Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach!” he exclaimed, and never tired of retelling the tale of the pious Jew, the true Mensch, the sainted Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach.
Though we may never discover precious stones dangling from the necks of donkeys, each of us will be faced with moments when our morality will be challenged. Will we do what is right and true – even if it means we will potentially lose out materially or emotionally? Our Menschlichkeit is challenged not in the easy, simple or straightforward moments, but rather in those moments when it would be easy and expedient to turn a blind eye for our own benefit and gain.
Being a truly “transcendent human being” means withstanding the temptation to pretend that ill-achieved gain does not impact on our sense of self. May we – inspired by this tale of our great teacher Rabbi Shimon – quest for integrity and righteousness and pray that our descendants will never tire of telling the tales of our integrity, our Menschlichkeit, our “transcendent humanity”. Amen!
In warm friendship, I bless us all with an Elevated Elul and a year filled with meaning and consequence.
Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose is The Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association.