Posted by: New Class Traitor | August 22, 2015

In a place where there are no…

A brief vignette for the Sabbath:

During the long summer months, it is customary to read and study Pirkei Avot (freely: Ethical Maxims of the Fathers) following the Sabbath afternoon service.

This short tractate from the Mishnah has always been a source of inspiration to this writer. A full English translation can be found here, although I always would keep an eye on the Hebrew original.

One saying I will highlight today is at the end of Pirkei Avot 2:5: u-ba-makom she-ein bo anashim, tishtadel lihyot ish (ובמקום שאין בו אנשים תשתדל להיות איש). This statement, because of the multiple meanings of anashim, is almost as polyvalent as (l’havdil) that quintessential Southernism, “bless your heart”. I can think of at least three meanings:

  1. translating “anashim” literally as “men”:
    “and in a place/situation where there are no men, strive to be a man”. That is how the phrase is understood in modern Hebrew: in a situation where nobody has the required courage/cojones/beitzim, you should at least try to “grow a pair”.
  2. However, in Hebrew (which has no neuter gender), “anashim” can also refer to “men and women”, i.e., human beings. Or, in Yiddish, menschen (literally: human beings; idiomatically: upright, strong yet compassionate human beings). Then the quote becomes:
    “and in a place where nobody behaves like a mensch, try to be a mensch“.
    This is the reading beloved of liberal synagogues, but true to the “broken clock rule”,
  3. There is another reading that occurred to me the other day.
    When you see something that needs doing, it’s not obvious others are already doing it, and you can do something: take up your responsibility and do not assume others will do so in your place.

Shabbat shalom.

Dedicated to the speedy recovery of Sarah bat Sharon


Responses

  1. I like your third meaning. It’s something that I try to do myself.


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