[Hillel] would say, “In a place where there are no mensches, strive to be a mensch.” Pirke Avot 2:6b
It’s hard to translate this teaching of Hillel into gender-neutral English. A literal English translation would be, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” The word eesh can also mean a person, but “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person” doesn’t capture the sense of what Hillel was trying to say. His exhortation can be understood on two levels. First, it seems clear to me that he was thinking of the story from Exodus 2:11-12 in which Moses …
“… went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”
However, the next day … (verses 13-14)
“… he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, ‘Why do you strike your fellow?’ He retorted, ‘Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ ”
Clearly, when Moses looked around, there were people watching the Egyptian beating the Hebrew, but no one was willing to intervene. The witnesses spread the word about what Moses had done both among the Israelites and the Egyptians. Not too long afterwards, Pharaoh found out and sought to kill Moses.
Hillel must have had this story in mind. In a place where there are no good people willing to step forward and fight for justice, be such a person. The Yiddish word for man, which in its Jewish and American usage has implications of moral goodness, is thus the best way to translate the mishnah: “In a place where there are no mensches, strive to be a mensch.”
However, Hillel may have had something else in mind as well. “In a place where there are no people,” where no one is around to watch you, nonetheless you should still behave like a mensch. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” Understood in this way, Hillel is reminding us that even when no human being is around to witness our behavior, God is a witness. Both ways of understanding this teaching of Hillel are worthy guides to a life of goodness.
Hebrew Words of the Month. The seder (order) of the Seder:
- Kaddesh – Recite the blessing over wine and sanctification of the day of Pesah.
- Ur’hatz – Ritually wash your hands by pouring water over them.
- Karpas – Eat the leafy greens vegetable.
- Yahatz – Break the middle matzah in half.
- Maggid – Tell the story of the Exodus.
- Rah’tza – Ritually wash your hands by pouring water over them.
- Motzi – Hamotzi, blessing over bread.
- Matzah – the blessing over the mitzvah of eating matzah.
- Maror – Blessing over maror, bitter herbs.
- Korekh – “Hillel” sandwich of matzah and maror.
- Shulhan Orekh – Arrange the food on the table.
- Tzafun – The hidden matzah, the Afikomen.
- Barekh – Birkat Hamazon, grace after the meal.
- Hallel – Praise God.
- Nirtzah – God accepts and is satisfied by our Seder.