He (Hillel) would say… in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man (Avot 2:6).
Though surrounded by many people, we often find ourselves in situations where no one else is ready to step up and take responsibility. Hillel mentions specifically a situation where others are not stepping up. The Gra”m Horovitz understands that the Gemara in Berachot 63a adds that one should not volunteer when others are.
In these situations – ”where there is no other” – Hillel encourages us to be the ish – the mature and responsible person.
The mefarshim apply Hillel’s words to different types of situations.
Responsibility For Ourselves
The Rambam focuses on Torah learning and personal growth. Though we should seek rebbeim to teach and guide us, we also need to be ready to teach and guide ourselves when no one else is available. We should view ourselves as capable of and responsible for developing ourselves (See Devarim 30:11-14, Sforno on pasuk 11, and Yalkut Shimoni Devarim 940). Though we learn and are inspired by many others, ultimately, “im ein ani li, mi li – if we are not responsible for ourselves, no one else will be” (Avot 1:14).
The Meiri and Medrash Shmuel add another aspect to this sense of personal responsibility. Hillel teaches us to act properly even when no one else is around to see our actions. Our internal compass and commitment to Hashem should be strong enough to guide us without needing the fear of or positive reinforcement from others (See Onkelos and Radak to Melachim I 1:2).
Other mefarshim understand Hillel’s words as a call for us to contribute to the broader community. When no one else volunteers for a communal role, we should fill the void. The Bartenura gives the example of teaching Torah: when Torah teaching is needed, we should step up to teach (See Sefer Mishlei 5:16-17).
Hillel personified his own words. The Gemara (Pesachim 66a) tells us that when Hillel arrived in Israel and found no one else proficient in the laws of kodshim, he assumed the position of nasi in order to teach others.
Torah leaders have shown this sense of communal responsibility throughout the ages. The gemara (Chullin 110a, see Rav Sherira Gaon Igeret pg.79 for the additional details) tells us that after passing through Sura and hearing a woman ask her friend how much milk to use when cooking a piece of meat, Rav decided to move there and open a yeshiva to educate the townspeople. Though Rav already headed a yeshiva in Neharda’a, he felt responsible for Sura as well.
1,700 years later, Rav Aharon Kotler took a similar step. During World War II, Rav Aharon found himself in Shanghai with the Mir Yeshiva, unsure of whether to proceed to Israel or to America. He did a gorel ha’Gra (a system that identifies a pasuk that is meant to guide our choices) which fell upon Hashem’s instruction to Aharon to meet and “help Moshe in the desert” (Shemot 4:27). Rav Aharon understood that he was being directed to join Rav Moshe Feinstein in America, a country whose desperate need for Torah teachers made it like a desert wasteland. Though Israel was his preferred Torah destination, Rav Aharon accepted the mission to travel to America. When he got there, he opened the Lakewood Yeshiva, which has played a central role in spreading Torah across America.
Hillel’s words apply to other forms of leadership as well (See Rashi to Avot 2:6 who explains Hillel in this way). We should be the ish who volunteers for whatever important mission is not being addressed.
Moshe Rabbeinu was a model of such leadership. When he encountered an Egyptian assaulting a Jew, he “looked both ways and saw ki ein ish – there was no man” (Shemot 2:12. See HaKtav V’hakabbalah who explains the pasuk this way). Though (presumably) there were many other people at the building site, no one intervened. As opposed to the others, who were afraid to act or did not see taking action as their responsibility, Moshe Rabbeinu stepped up and saved the Jew by killing the Egyptian, even though he realized that his action might force him to have to flee Egypt.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (essay: Taking Responsibility) develops the importance of this type of leadership:
Leadership is where a person takes responsibility where others are not present… A leader is one who takes responsibility. Leadership is born when we become active, not passive, when we do not wait for someone else to act because perhaps there is no one else – at least not here, not now.
When bad things happen, some avert their eyes. Some wait for others to act. Some blame others for failing to act. Some simply complain. But there are some people who say, “If something is wrong, let me try to put it right.” They are the leaders. They are the ones who make a difference in their lifetimes. They are the ones who make ours a better world…A responsible life is a life that responds by taking responsibility.”
Many of our ancestors have exemplified this trait. Nachshon ben Aminadav was an excellent example. The Jews stood at the banks of the Yam Suf, hemmed in by the Egyptians threatening them from behind. Hashem told them to move forward into the sea, but the people were afraid. Nachshon saw that no one else was moving forward and led the way with his leap of faith.
Many fine non-Jews also take such initiatives. An excellent example are the almost thirty thousand “righteous gentiles” who saved Jews during the Holocaust. These fine people, recognized by Israel as “Chassidei Umot Ha’Olam,” stepped up to assist their Jewish neighbors who had no one else to turn to. Like Moshe Rabbeinu, these righteous gentiles were willing to risk their own lives to assist those who no one else was willing to assist.
Being A Builder
Though our first responsibility is to ourselves, Hillel teaches us that we should also feel responsible for the broader community and world. Rebbi Elazar quotes Rebbi Chanina (Berachot 64a) who inferred this point from the pasuk of “v’chol banayich limudei Hashem, v’rav shalom banayich” (Yeshayahu 54:13). He read the word banayich (sons) as bonayich (builders) and explained that talmidei chachamim should aim to build the world. We grow from the status of banayich to that of ish when we appreciate the role we are meant to play as bonayich.
May we be inspired by Hillel’s words to take responsibility – for ourselves and for others – in situations where no one else is willing to.
Summarized by Rafi Davis