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Pirkei Avot 2:5 Strive to be a Man

"He [Rabban Gamliel son of Rebbe Yehudah the Nasi] would also say: the boor cannot be sin-fearing, the ignoramus cannot be pious, the bashful cannot learn, the short-tempered cannot teach, nor does the one who trades profusely grow wise. And, where there are no men, strive to be a man."   (Pirkei Avot 2:5)

One of the important examples of an individual who fulfilled the dictum, “strive to be a man” is Elkanah, the father of Samuel the prophet, as is related in the Jerusalem Talmud[1]: “Rabbi Ze’irah said: …Elkana encouraged Israel to make the thrice-yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem.”

Elkanah lived in Ramatayim-Tzofim, but every year he would make a number of pilgrimages to the Tabernacle in Shiloh. He would not, however, keep all this goodness to himself. Every time that he would make the pilgrimage to Shiloh, he would encourage additional families to accompany him, as is related in the midrash[2]:

Elkanah and his wife and his sons and his household and his brothers and his sisters and all his relatives would ascend with him. And when they would ascend with him, on their way, they would sleep in the street of the city.

And people would gather, men separately and women separately. A man would speak with a man and a woman with a woman and the older person with a younger person. And the town would be full of excitement and enthusiasm, and they would ask them: “Where are you going?” And they would answer them, “To the house of God in Shiloh, for from there Torah and good deeds emerge. And you, why don’t you come with us, and we will go together?” Immediately their eyes would fill with tears, and they would say to them: “We will travel with you!” And so, he would say to them.

The next year another five families would ascend with him and the next year ten families and the next year everyone felt they too must make the pilgrimage and about sixty families would travel with him. The route that he took one year, he would not take the next year, until all of Israel would ascend. And Elkanah would bring merit to the entire Jewish people and educate them and many merited through him.

Every person has a special mitzvah into which he must invest special effort. In the idiom of the sages, as explained in Chasidut, this is known as being “especially careful”[3] (זְהִיר טְפֵי). The Aramaic (and Hebrew) word that means “careful” also means “illuminated,” implying that by the performance of one’s special mitzvah, one is spiritually illuminated.[4] Elkanah’s special mitzvah was the pilgrimage to the Tabernacle. He would not only make the trip three times a year as commanded by the Torah, but he would visit a fourth time every year, on a voluntary basis. Each pilgrimage would be accompanied by a public campaign to encourage others to join him on his journey to Shiloh.

Every person must find his mission in life by means of which he “strives to be a man.” If he has a Rebbe or a mentor who can tell him what his mission is, he is certainly fortunate. But, if he does not, our mishnah instructs him, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” Strive to be a man and discover for yourself what your special mission is.

Elkanah’s mission was to be a man and to bring the Jewish people to a place where “there are no men.” The numerical value of Elkanah (אֶלְקָנָה) is the same as that of “place” (מָקוֹם). Elkanah filled the empty place when there are no men. The ultimate place is occupied by the Tabernacle and later, the place occupied by the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. We can apply this to every place and every time. It is incumbent upon us to bring as many people as possible to a place of Torah learning, which is like the place of the Temple, “from where instruction and light emanate to the entire world.”[5]


[1]. Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 9:5.

[2]. Tana Debei Eliyahu Rabbah 8, quoted here in abridged form.

[3]. Shabbat 118b.

[4]. Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh 17.

[5]. Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 4:5.


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Rachel Gordon
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