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Taking Responsibility

He used to say: A brute (bur) is not sin-fearing, nor is an ignorant person (am ha-aretz) pious; nor can a timid person (bayshan) learn, nor can an impatient person (kapdan) teach; nor will all who engage in too much business become wise. In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.

To what extent are you in control of your life?

Many early psychological theories assumed that the answer to this question was “not much.” These deterministic approaches argued that human beings are mostly controlled by either external stimuli or internal unconscious drives. The individual self has an illusory role—or perhaps, at best, a secondary status—in determining a person’s decisions. Beginning in the 1950’s, however, psychologists adhering to humanistic and existential philosophies, began to accentuate the power of the individual to solve his or her own predicaments and to become the best version of him or herself. This entails a sense of freedom in contrast to determinacy, and requires the individual not to blame external forces for his or her problems, but to take responsibility. One of the best articulated versions of this argument in a therapeutic context comes from Dr. Irvin Yalom in his 1980 book “Existential Psychotherapy,” where he writes of the relationship between responsibility and therapy:

Responsibility means authorship. To be aware of responsibility is to be aware of creating one’s own self, destiny, life predicament, feelings and, if such be the case, one's own suffering. For the patient who will not accept such responsibility, who persists in blaming others - either other individuals or other forces - for his or her dysphoria, no real therapy is possible (p. 218).

One of the key themes in this Mishna (Avot 2:6) is responsibility. To get a better sense of how this idea permeates Hillel’s four statements, it is first important to notice the structure of the Mishna.

1. A brute (bur) is not sin-fearing, nor is an ignorant person (am ha-aretz) pious;

2. Nor can a timid person learn, nor can an impatient person (kapdan) teach;

3. Nor will someone who engages too much in business become wise.

4. In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person

There is a fundamental difference between the first three clauses and the last. The first three are statements of fact. If we read them without too much analysis we may conclude that Hillel’s comments are descriptive—just communicating a reality. He doesn’t appear to be encouraging any specific action. The last clause, however, is prescriptive, an imperative. It suggests, adjures, perhaps even commands the reader to do something.

Yet, there is a common methodological consideration in Pirkei Avot, which assumes that each statement, even when not directly instructing something specific, is in effect giving advice, not just stating a fact. When Hillel communicates his first three ideas, there is an implicit practical lesson the reader should glean. Perhaps the key to unveiling the hidden imperative of the first three “facts” is found in the explicit instruction of the fourth clause. Consequently, we will start by analyzing the latter and then read the first three through the prism of the last statement.

4. “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person”

While the connotations of being “a person” are somewhat ambiguous, the main message seems to be one of responsibility: even in a place where the environment is deficient and there are no role-models to emulate, we have a responsibility to try and excel. The commentaries provide additional layers of meaning and context. Rashi understands Hillel to be referring to communal responsibility. In a place where nobody is taking care of the needs of the other, we should take charge. In contrast, Rambam understands the message in terms of self-growth. Even if there are no other teachers to guide us in improving our character or intellect, it is up to us to struggle and strive on our own to acquire these traits.

Rabbeinu Yonah offers several interpretations, including: 1) in a place where there are no others to help influence us to do mitzvot and follow in God’s path, we have to fill the role ourselves; 2) if we see that Torah learning or observance is weak in our environment, we should exert ourselves and take a stand for its sake; 3) even in a scenario where there is nobody around who is wiser than us, that shouldn’t hinder us from becoming wise on our own. Midrash Shmuel adds three more interpretations; 4) in a place where there aren’t enough qualified people teaching Torah, we should become teachers; 5) in a place where others are not able to control their evil inclination, we should exhibit self-control and not learn from them; 6) even if we are alone, in a place where nobody else can see if we do something wrong, we should be righteous even in private, and avoid sinning.

In all, the message is one of responsibility. In terms of personal responsibility, even if there are no positive role-models to guide us, we need to take responsibility for our own development. Even though our environment can potentially impact us negatively, that is no excuse. It is up to us to combat any adverse environmental influences to fully develop into a righteous person. We also have a social responsibility. We need to look out for the needs of the community, and we need to provide education for those who we can positively influence. This message of personal and social responsibility resonates well with Hillel’s message from the first chapter of Pirkei Avot (1:14) “‘If I am not for myself who will be for me? But when I am only for my own self, what am I?” (see Psyched for Avot on that Mishna).

Using the imperative of the fourth clause, namely, to take responsibility, we can now better understand Hillel’s first three statements of facts through the lens of responsibility.

1. A brute (bur) is not sin-fearing, nor is an ignorant person (am ha-aretz) pious.

Commentaries vary on the nuanced difference between a brute and an ignorant person. For sake of simplicity, let us assume like the Rambam that a brute lacks wisdom and refined character, and an ignorant person has some elements of good character but lacks elevated intelligence. Is Hillel just communicating a stark reality that is unalterable?

In a creative explanation, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vorka offers an interpretation that accentuates the message of responsibility. He writes that “It is tempting to fault one’s “aretz,” environment, for one’s lack of piety. Such an individual, who blames external factors rather than his own lack of internal self-development, will never become a chassid” (translation from Artscroll’s Sfas Emes Edition of Pirkei Avot). Piety and personal growth come from not blaming external forces and taking personal responsibility.

Hillel is presenting the reader with a choice. If you want to be sin-fearing and pious, it is impossible to do so without learning more. He is making this point explicit so we shouldn’t delude ourselves that it is possible to be sin-fearing or pious without being learned. If we want to avoid this reality, the solution should be relatively obvious: learn! In fact, Sforno connects this first statement of Hillel in this Mishna with his last statement from the last Mishna: “And do not say ‘when I am free, I shall study;’ perhaps you will not be free.” The advice to the reader who wants to fear sin and become pious is to continue to learn Torah. There is a “fact” that without being learned we cannot achieve fear of sin or piety, but knowing that reality, we are encouraged to choose the solution, which is to learn more.

2. Nor can a timid person learn, nor can an impatient person (kapdan) teach.

Here Hillel also offers an empirical reality. Despite the fact that shame often has a positive connotation in rabbinic literature, that is not the case in the learning context. Someone who is too shy, embarrassed, or ashamed to speak up and ask questions, will not learn the material effectively. In addition, someone who is impatient, angry, or too exacting while teaching, will not be an effective teacher. The students will not respond well to the anger, will subsequently be afraid to ask questions, and it will be very difficult to develop a close teacher-student relationship. Once again, is Hillel just stating a fact? Is the message, if you are timid, don’t even bother learning? If you are impatient, don’t teach? It is more likely that Hillel is encouraging the learner who is shy to take responsibility for his or her emotions and choose to be more courageous. Overcome the fear to speak up, make mistakes, ask questions, and offer answers. If a teacher notices that he or she is getting irritated by students, he or she needs to take responsibility and work on emotional regulation skills so that the anger doesn’t seep out into the classroom.

3. Nor will all who engage too much in business become wise.

Finally, as has been emphasized by several of the Sages in Pirkei Avot, work is an important value. Yet, Hillel here points to the “fact” that if someone works too much, there will be a direct consequence on their wisdom. We have a limited amount of time, and whatever choices we make investing that time into one area will close doors on other opportunities. Hillel is making this fact explicit. We can’t spend too much time on business (or other hobbies for that matter), and still be wise. If we want to be wise, we need to take the responsibility to manage our time better, and not invest more resources than necessary in non-wisdom related pursuits.

In all, the message of responsibility permeates all layers of this Mishna. The explicit imperative of the last clause to take responsibility despite what everyone around us may be doing, clues us in to Hillel’s other points. People who are ignorant can’t fear sin or be pious, so we should take responsibility and learn. A timid person can’t learn, and an impatient person can’t teach, so we should take emotional responsibility and change. Investing too much into business pursuits will prevent wisdom, so we should utilize our time responsibly. No matter what internal or external forces may influence us, we need to take responsibility for our own destinies.


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