Today is April 21, 2024 /

Main Office: 215-635-3110

Find Us: 8231 Old York Rd., Elkins Park, PA (part of Beth Sholom campus)


The Golem and the Mensch

October 29, 2021

This week’s d’var Torah on Chayei Sarah.

Halloween is not a Jewish holiday. In some ways, it is the opposite of a Jewish holiday. When we dress up in costumes and go door to door (on Purim), it’s for the purpose of sharing food with others, not demanding sweets for ourselves.

Nevertheless, costumes and candy and spooky stories have become part of the American experience at this season, and we have plenty of scary stories in the Jewish tradition. One of these tales is that of the Golem.

In the Bible (Psalm 139:16) and the midrash (Genesis Rabbah 14:8), the word golem refers to something unformed, such as matter of the human body prior to creation. According to the Talmud, we hear a rumor that some of the rabbis were so righteous that they were able to animate creations of their own (Sanhedrin 65b). This was reportedly done by inscribing a divine name—often the word emet or “truth”—on the golem’s forehead or on a piece of paper inserted in the golem’s mouth. Such beings were created to do their masters’ bidding, sometimes as a household servant or even Shabbes goy—a non-Jewish person who can perform duties Jews are prohibited from doing on the Sabbath. In more difficult times, the golem was fashioned as a physical protector of the community and defender from anti-Semitic attacks.

In many ways, the golem was a kind of avatar: it was physically large and brutally strong in a way that most Jews weren’t, and as such, was able to defend—and avenge—the community, in a way that a human Jew could not.

But, as with most human attempts to play God, this one often got out of hand. Because a golem was basically the Jewish id walking around in this giant body, it could be clumsy at best, and violent at worst. In these cases, the person who created the golem would need to destroy it by erasing the letters inscribed on its hand (or removing the piece of paper in its mouth) that brought it to life. For instance, removing the alef from emet would reveal the word met, or “dead.” Some say that the golem created by the Maharal of Prague in the 16th century still lives in the attic of the Altneuschul.

The legend of the golem was featured in an episode of the Xfiles called “Kaddish,” which I love, and is thought to be the inspiration for the creators of the original Superman comics.

Rabbi Jay Michaelson writes that the golem legends remind us that, “The power of life is so strong, that it brings both promise and terror.”

And that is not only true for mythical creatures. It’s true for us as well. We, too, come into the world somewhat unformed. We, too, are shaped by outside forces, and animated by the power of words. We, too, have baser impulses that need to be conquered, and energies that need to be channeled for good.

And as humans beings, we have the power to shape ourselves and those around us.

In this week’s Torah portion, Chayeh Sarah, Abraham’s servant is charged with the task of bringing home a bride for Isaac. He finds a woman who is beautiful, pure, and from a good family. But this isn’t why he chooses her. He chooses her because she is kind. We later learn that she is also strong, courageous, and even at times defiant. But it is her kindness that the servant seeks, because that is what will be needed to shape the future generations.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes: “Given that the Torah is a covenant of hesed—love, caring, human solidarity, striving for a better world, [the servant] had his priorities straight. Having a strong character imbued with kindness, caring, and generosity signal fitness to be a matriarch of this covenant.”

Just as good lineage wasn’t enough for Rebecca to prove her worth as Isaac’s bride, we cannot rely solely on our lineage either. Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the 19th century spiritual discipline movement called Mussar, taught that we must cultivate these good qualities in ourselves through regular study, prayer, practice, and reflection.

Rabbi Salanter was known to say: “The Torah came to make a mensch,” the Yiddish word for “man,” but also for a person of good character.  Rabbi Greenberg explains that Rabbi Salanter believed that, “the Torah sought to create a human ecology. Out of its mix of story, narrative, observances, experiences, guidelines, and community building, a human being would grow. This human would be of good character—ethical, caring, not ego driven to stand out but motivated to be kind and helpful to others. This human would relate to God and therefore be humble and aware of their limitations. This person would be inner-directed—connected to people but not needing to curry favor at the cost of principles or values. The Torah’s stories, commandments, wisdom, instructions, and ways of living—were intended to nurture a good human being—with reverence for God, for fellow human beings, and for life itself.”

Those who practice Mussar select specific qualities or middot they want to cultivate in themselves over a set period: kindness, patience, compassion, gratitude, or others. During that time, they might study sacred texts related to this quality, and assign themselves actions that would help them develop it each day. After a week or a month, the focus would shift to another quality.

Cultivating these qualities is not something that’s done after a week, a month, a semester, or a year. Rather, it is a lifelong process of learning, trying, failing, reflecting, and trying again. It is a process of seeking the right balance, and of helping others to grow as well.

For instance, coming back to Halloween, I had a colleague who was raised in a more traditional Jewish household where trick-or-treating was forbidden. However, she was permitted to hand out candy to the children who came to her house. Her parents instructed her that they were practicing the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. What could have been (and probably was to some extent) a moment of feeling left out, or resentful of one’s parents, became an opportunity to shape herself into a more generous person. One might even say that her parents were teaching her to emulate the kindness and generosity of our ancestor, Rebecca.

Rabbi Greenberg writes: “By modeling ourselves on Rebecca, on Moses, on Ruth, we seek to realize the Torah’s primary goal of making a mensch. Or as Salanter said on another occasion, “They say that the Maharal [Rabbi Judah Low] of Prague took some clay and fashioned a miraculous Golem to protect the Jewish people. That would be a great miracle. Yet, it is an even greater miracle to take any individual—a limited, flesh and blood, mixed traits human being, and turn them into a mensch.”

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz