B’makom She’ein Anashim

Composition & recording © Alexander Massey 6 Feb 2021 – All Rights Reserved

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בּמָקוֹם שֶּׁאֵין אֳנָשִׁום, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ
B’makom she’ein anashim, hishtadeil lih’yot ish.
Pirkei Avot / Ethics of the Fathers 2:5

As with so much Hebrew, a literal translation of this verse fails to do justice to the original text: “In a place where there is no man, be a man.” Clearly, we must look more deeply to find what this might really be about.

The context gives us some clues:

Ein bur yodei chat;
v’lo am ha’aretz chasid;
v’lo habaishan lameid;
v’lo kol hakafdan m’lameid;
v’lo kol hamar’beh vis’chorah mach’kim;
uv’makom she’ein anashim
hishtadeil lih’yot ish.

The brute will not know sin;
the uneducated will fail to show kindness;
the shy will not learn;
the pedantic / impatient cannot teach;
the busy person won’t grow wise;
in place where there is no human,
strive to be a human.

Once again, we have begun with a literal translation. What new information might this give us? It seems that the passage is about human qualities and behaviour. But I’m not happy with the translation of the last line. When we want to excuse a mistake, or a wrong someone has done, we sometimes say, “But they’re only human.” This suggests that ‘being human’ is fundamentally about being flawed or inadequate. But people can also do wonderful things, and be beacons of inspiration for us – that’s also what it means to be human.

If we walk slowly through these six lines of teaching, we might be able to arrive at a deeper appreciation of what the last line could mean. Reading commentary by Rashi Maimonides and others, I have created my own interpretation of these lines:

  • Those lacking learning or morality will fail to act on the basis of understanding of, or care for, right and wrong;
  • those who lack learning but have some sense of right and wrong may still fail to show kindness;
  • those who are reluctant to ask questions, out of embarrassment for their lack of learning, and who are not open to their need to learn, will not learn;
  • the pedantic or impatient teacher, who is not open to a student’s needs, fails to serve the student, and inhibits the student’s need or impulse to learn and grow;
  • the one preoccupied by their busy-ness, transactions and personal gain will not grow wise;
  • in place where there is no one to respond to the needs of the community, strive to help the community – in a place where there is no humanity, strive to bring humanity.

For me, this text is teaching us to be open always to learning and growing, and to helping others to do so too; to maintain a sense of right and wrong; to never let our personal preoccupations blind us to what is important; to extend ourselves for others; to strive to be both wise and kind.

The music of my setting of the last line touches on darkness, because that is what we feel in the absence of humanity. But the music also sometimes moves towards light. I know in my own life how important it is to offer myself compassion in my darkest moments. I hope that this setting can inspire others to move towards wisdom, kindness and humanity, both for themselves, and others.

Ner YHVH nishmat adam.
The soul of every person is a lamp of God. (Prov. 20:27)

God can be found in the darkness, even the darkest places of ourselves. And sometimes, in the darkest places, it is we who must be the light.