There are many synagogues whose names begin with the word anshei (Anshei Emes, Anshei Shalom, Anshei Chesed, Anshei Emunah). There are also Anshei synagogues named for individuals, families, or sources of origin (Anshei Lubavitch, Anshei Minsk, Anshei Sefard, Anshei Israel). The Men of the Great Assembly were the Anshei Knesset Hagdolah.
For fun I did a Google search and found the Facebook page of Camp Minkatch, which had a night activity several years ago in which they named their bunks (some were repeats of the names listed above but they also had Anshei Ruach, Anshei Middos, Anshei Avoda, Anshei Torah, Anshei Zrizos, Anshei Chayil, Anshei Simcha).
What’s striking to me is the difference between the kinds of anshei the camp utilized rather than the names used by synagogues. To demonstrate, let’s translate the non-proper names words. For the synagogues we have anshei (“people of”) Truth, Peace, Kindness, Faith. And while the camp also had kindness and truth, the names listed in the previous paragraph mean People of spirit, character, service (of G-d), Torah, alacrity, valor, happiness.
It is silly to argue which of these depictions is better. But in the camp list I find more of a focus on what we call middos (ethical character improvement). One of the names was even Anshei Middos! — which makes sense, of course, because a camp is dedicated to chinukh (Jewish education) and one of the key components of Jewish education should be on improving middos.
Ironically, the phrase “Anshei Middos” appears in our Torah portion in the context of the report of the spies, when they were describing the people they had seen in the land. Verse 13:32 says, “They began to speak badly [tell lies] about the land that they had explored. They told the Israelites, ‘The land that we crossed to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants. All the men we saw there were Anshei Middos’.”
ommentaries debate what Anshei Middos means. The literal translation is “People of measure,” and in the context of their statement it seems they perceived these people as being very tall. However, the idea that the land’s inhabitants “are huge” is being shared to us in the same verse as when all their words are being described as lies. Were the land’s inhabitants enormous or not?
What does Anshei Middos really mean?
The commentaries vary. Some focus on their size (Midrash Aggadah) and the need to take account of them (Rashi). Ibn Ezra seems to describe them as men of distinction. Related, some (Ramban, Or HaChaim, Malbim, Netziv, HaKtav V’Hakabbalah) focus on their qualities with respect to the land — when the land is good, people can grow in size. The only people who can survive in this land are those who can benefit from the enormous fruit. (This implies that we who are average size can’t survive in the land).
Another group says that Anshei Middos is a professional quality. They measure things! (R Chaim Paltiel) Daat Zekenim suggest they are people who measure their food and drink (presumably before eating, though perhaps before buying/selling?).
Targum Yonatan and Toldot Yitzchak focus on their middos in the way we usually utilize the word today, referring to character traits. Ironically, they interpret it in opposite ways. Targum Yonatan says they were people who had terrible middos (character), while Toldot Yitzchak says (in his first interpretation) they have Good middos.
Owing to the description of their being Anshei Middos coming in the verse that the Torah describes as being “Dibbat Ha’aretz,” I like to think that even the depiction of their being Anshei Middos is a tainted statement. Regardless, I wonder how much we emphasize being Anshei Middos.
I’ve never heard of a synagogue with such a name. We talk about truth and kindness and peace, but maybe it’s more of a way we like to think we are, considering that even these such-named synagogues may have their own internal politics and in-fighting.
So why not Anshei Middos? Why is a focus on middos something we limit to the lip-service of chinukh and children?
More pointedly, why is it that even with said lip-service there is an overall failure in the middos department?
vot 6:5-6 tells us the 48 ways (middos) through which a person can acquire Torah. It’s an important list. And while there might be some overlap, here is a contemporary list to consider undertaking for ourselves and to teach to our children.
Humility — Do I look to put other people up? Do I remember that it’s never about me, myself, I and my ego (which should be put in check in most circumstances)?
Awareness of surrounding — Am I hurting someone else? Can I be helpful? Is there a mess that no one is cleaning which I can take care of? If someone is making an effort to clean, am I pitching in? Am I dropping my own garbage on the floor or leaving it on a table for someone else to deal with? Can I take out the garbage?
Kindness — Do I care for the person who seems lonely? Do I see the child who is ignored? Do I protect the awkward person from abuse and unfair treatment? Do I know how to talk to the ill, the depressed, the mourner? Can I bring a smile to someone who really needs a little cheer? Can I be the helping hand, the welcome shoulder, the person who gives the needed hug?
I spent a Shabbos with a number of unsupervised children at a bar mitzvah recently. Some of them were lovely, respectful, clearly raised with an awareness of how they are to behave, and how they ought to impress.
And then there was a larger number of those who were largely unimpressive — obnoxious, inconsiderate, making messes and not cleaning up, destroying property, completely unaware of how poorly they represent themselves.
The Jewish people must be defined as Anshei Middos — anshei GOOD middos. Many of us are good about this. Many of us need work. Many of our children need much work.
Let us aim to impress, through humility and awareness. Amen.