In a Place Where There Are No People
This week we shall focus on an oft-misquoted statement of Hillel (2:5): "In a place where there are no men, endeavour to be a man."
Rashi explains that this means that in the absence of individuals that can take care of the needs of the community, you should stand up to fill that role. The Bartenura explains the Mishnah in a similar manner, explaining that if one is in a place where there is noone to teach and instruct, then you should endeavour to fill the void. Both these answers stress a sense of obligation to the serve community when a role needs to be filled.
Indeed, this is what people generally imply when they quote this Mishnah. When they do so, it is generally incorrectly quoted as, "be'makom shein ish" – in a place where there is no person. The Mishnah however reads "be'mako shein anashim" – in a place where there are no people. The true wording of the Mishnah allows for further interpretations of the Mishnah.
The Tifferet Yisrael also explains the Mishnah as directing one to the community, but with a broader focus than fulfilling specific roles. He explains that if one sees that the generation has spiritually declined, one must garner one's courage and faith in Hashem and take the lead in trying to turn the community around.
Irving Bunim (Ethic from Sinai) adds that this statement is critical considering Hillel's previous teaching of "do no separate from the community". That teaching is fine if the community is strong, but what if it is no longer living up the Torah standard? He explains, that "that situation calls for a man, for the individual who will stand up to the group, for the strong, adamant person who will say no!" He continues that we inherit that capacity to go against the tide from Avraham, the original Ivri – the one who could stand on one side (ever) of the religious battle. He continues: "If the Jewish People had always gone along with the majority, there would be no Jewry and no Israel today."
The Tifferet Yisrael's second explanation however turns the focus inward. He explains that if a person of average learning, is surrounded by uneducated peers there is a tendency to feel that they already a giant and become complacent. The Mishnah warns that one should not be satisfied, and instead continue to strive for true greatness.
The Ruach Chaim similarly focuses on the spiritual welfare of the individual. He explains that often there is a need for one to be in isolation. Nevertheless, despite the fact that there is no one to witness your actions, Hashem is watching at every moment. Consequently if in a place where there are no people, you should still strive to be an Ish.
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