Just be a mentsch! That's the Jewish mother's traditional exhortation to her child. Study, work, love, live — do whatever it is you do. But at the end of the day — be a mentsch!

What is a mentsch? Webster's defines the word (being one of the many Yiddish words which have crept into American parlance) as "a decent and responsible human being."

That sounds accurate to me.

Also spelled "mensch," and "mentch," the word means "person" or "human." So your mother was actually yelling "Be a person!" or "Be a human!" Didn't she have higher aspirations for you? You can certainly do better than achieving "human" status!

Or can you?

Let's look at the achievement of being "human." The Torah seems to emphasize the term "human" when it teaches about the binding nature of vows. When you promise something, that word is your bond. You have a Divine obligation to honor your commitments, even if they're not witnessed, recorded and notarized.

But there is a way of annulling a vow. A rabbinic body can negate someone's vow, if they find that it was uttered in anger, without thought of the consequences and without mature consideration.

The Talmud teaches that this is indicated in the Torah's (seemingly superfluous) usage of the term "human" when speaking of the making of vows. Your vow only sticks if you were a human when you made it.

Well, who else would make a vow? A dog or a cat? The Torah seems to indicate that people can choose to be "human" (the type of beings humans are designed to be), or they can be less than that. Through their conduct, people can fall below the human bar.

What is the Torah definition of a human? A human has the capacity for self-assessment. A human has the mental and moral capacity to override impulse (can a dog decide to go on a diet?). A human can choose to follow his moral compass instead of his physical inclination. A human can calculate consequences beyond the immediate.

That is the Torah description of a human, the Torah definition of a mentsch.

If you weren't a mentsch when you uttered a vow, if you acted impulsively without using your human gifts of cognition and moral perspective, then your action was less than human. Our actions have clout when our conduct is human — mature and responsible — not when we're acting like two-legged animals.

So the Torah definition of "human" is something we should all strive for.

Interestingly, the term has different connotations when used in American parlance.

When a person is weak, less than noble, impulse-driven instead of morally focused, what do we say?

"Listen, he's only human!"

In our vernacular, recognizing that a person is "human" is acknowledging his inherent weakness. We see a "human" as inherently flawed and morally feeble. We cut a guy slack because we know he can't reach a noble goal; after all, he's only human! What can you really expect from this person of flesh and blood?

Think about it. The Torah/Jewish term of human — mentsch — is something to strive for, while the American "human" is a fall-back position in case of moral failure.

Big deal, you say. These are only words. Well, words are powerful. And the way they're used by a society makes a huge difference in its collective moral consciousness. Consciously or sub-consciously, we all identify as "human." Does that inspire us to strive higher, to be a mentsch? Or does it allow us to relax our standards, recognizing that we're only human? Does our sense of humanity rouse us to action, or does it ease our acceptance of our moral inadequacies?

Accepting the latter definition has led to a moral "dumbing down" of society.

Of course we all have a weaker side. Of course we all have to work hard if we are to be morally focused, responsible and noble. I'm hardly the morally perfect one who is in a position to judge the morally weak.

I'm talking about our potential. I'm talking about our context for life. I'm talking about our own frame of reference for what we can achieve.

In counseling people, my biggest struggle is often in convincing people that they have the ability to improve themselves and their lives. People become comfortable with their self-images of a weak and flawed human being. My goal is to show them the mentsch they can be.

Let's not relax our standards. When a person fails morally, don't be judgmental; but don't normalize it either. When a person commits an immoral act, he is certainly not an animal by strict definition. But he is tapping into his animal side, not his human/mentsch dimension. He is being human, but he's not being a mentsch.

In our own minds, let's redefine who we are and who we can be.

Yes, I'm human. But please don't denigrate me by saying that moral weakness is my norm. Let me recognize the G‑d-given potential that I have. Let me acknowledge the quintessential humanity, the true mentschlichkeit, I can achieve.