He (Hillel) used to say: A boor is not one who fears sin; nor can an ignorant person be pious. A shy person does not learn, and an [overly] strict person is not one who can teach. And not everyone who increases commerce (“sechorah”) becomes wise. And in a place where there are no “people,” attempt to be a “person.”
After teaching lessons that bring perfection to the entire human being in all his dimensions, the Tanna concludes “In a place where there are no ‘people,’ attempt to be a ‘person’.” This means that when you see that no one is doing something that needs to be done, you should be the “person of action.” As the one responsible for ensuring that the necessary deed was done, your reward is great. (In the following section the Maharal analyzes in minute detail a section of Talmud, Berachoth 63a, that seems to repeat what is learned in our Mishna. It is best if you can locate the section, and follow the arguments inside, in the original Aramaic. It will be complex, and I will do my best to present it in a comprehensible way in this limiting medium, limited by it being a) English only and b) written “impersonally,” as opposed to an interactive oral explanation.) We learn in Berachoth (63a) that Bar Kapara taught: In a place where there is no “person,” There you should be a “person.” (Where I have written “person” the word used in the Aramaic is “gvar,” which literally means “man,” as our Mishna uses the word “ish.” There are some fundamental reasons for this word choice, which in no way excludes women in this lesson. It does, however, imply certain assumptions about innate male and female characteristics and differences. This is not the forum to develop these issues, especially in these “politically correct” times. 🙂 But be aware that our Rabbis taught us some fundamental truths about these issues. We have touched on them briefly in Chapter 1, Mishna 5, and we may come back to them later in this chapter.) [The Gemara continues by deducing from Bar Kapara’s statement:] “But in a place where there IS a “person” you should Not be a person. (If someone else is doing it, you should Not do it.) [Asks the Gemara a question:] This (implication from Bar Kapara’s statement) is obvious! [Why did you need to point it out?] [The Gemara provides an answer:] It was necessary (to point it out) for the case where both (people) are equal (in qualifications).” (This concludes the quote from the Gemara. Now the Maharal begins his analysis.) What is Bar Kapara teaching us that we don’t already know from our Mishna?! Furthermore, why didn’t the Talmud make its deduction (about Not being a “person”) from our Mishna? (Since the Mishna seems to have taught exactly what Bar Kapara is teaching, the deduction should have been made on the statement of our Mishna, as an earlier source, rather than on the re-statement of Bar Kapara, who is a later source!) And, finally, the deduction itself is far from compelling. Maybe all that Bar Kapara is teaching is that in a place when there is no “person” you are Required to be a “person,” but in a place where there is a(nother) person, you aren’t Required to be a “person” (doing what is needed). However, you are still Allowed to be a “person” (taking action)!
The explanation is as follows. The Mishna teaches us that when there is no “person” (when something that needs to be done is not being done by anyone) you are Required and responsible to take the necessary action. Bar Kapara then adds that this is true Only when there is no person doing what needs to be done, but in no other situation. From this statement the Talmud makes it deduction that in a place where the needed action is being done by someone, you should Not be a “person” (likewise doing the needed action). And it is on this deduction that the Talmud asks “Obviously!” This is clearly what Bar Kapara meant. Why did you need to say it explicitly? (A fundamental principle in studying the words of our Rabbis is that if there is no other reasonable way of interpreting something, we are expected to properly understand it for ourselves, without the need to have it spelled out explicitly.) And the Gemara responds that it was necessary to point it out for the case where both people are equal. Since there is another person of equal stature and qualification doing what needs to be done, why should you take the job for yourself rather than letting your colleague take it.
(This very concise and condensed statement of the Maharal to explain this lesson contains within it a whole perspective on ambition and accomplishment. A person who does things in a quest for personal fulfillment, self-actualization, or to forge an identity could undertake projects or challenges even if others are who equally (or even more) qualified are accomplishing what needs to be accomplished. In a “rights” oriented society (as opposed to a “responsibilities” oriented one) the refrain would be “It is my right to have that opportunity.” This is reflected in the attitude of “taking” a position of responsibility, rather than giving and serving in that capacity.
(Judaism begins from a perspective of “responsibilities.” We exist to fulfill responsibilities and tasks assigned to us by our Creator. Of course, one of the most difficult things, even after we have made the difficult decision to commit ourselves to that service, is to identify what, exactly, G-d wants from us. We usually make at least one of the following mistakes in trying to identify what that is. Either we mistakenly project what We want to do as being what G-d wants us to do. Or we look around to see what everyone else is doing, and assume that is what G-d wants us to also do, when what is really motivating us is the fear and insecurity of being “different.” Or we look to build our egos by doing things that will bring us validation and recognition from others, justifying it as being in the “service of Heaven.” These negative motivations can be identified by how we respond when others are doing what needs to be done. Do we try to push our way in anyway? Are we jealous of what they are doing? Or are we pleased that the purpose of the world is closer to being accomplished, as we look to identify Other things that are Not being done, things that we are uniquely capable of accomplishing. This requires the realization that G-d made each of us different, and that G-d made a world that has lots of different challenges. Creating each of us with different talents and abilities leads to the expectation that each of us will fulfill a different role, accomplish different things, leading to a world of perfection in all dimensions and to all people making a unique contribution to that perfection in line with their unique capabilities. We must have a deep security and confidence in our special abilities, as we identify what unique role can be fulfilled with those abilities, and as we commit ourselves to serve in that role. We must have what today is called an “abundance mentality” and we must be committed to use our resources, talents and abilities to give and to serve.
(This is the lesson that the Maharal has extracted from the seemingly redundant nature of the Bar Kapara’s statement and the Gemara’s discussion about it.)