There’s a famous pithy saying that “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” This American proverb is understood as a tribute to those who step forward and take charge when faced with a trying situation. Insightful words such as this proverb attributed to Joseph Kennedy (1888-1969), reflect the wisdom of the sages: “He [Hillel] used to say…In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man*” (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 2:6).

The Mishna of Avot does not go further to define what is meant by this statement, though many commentators offer suggestions regarding exactly which types of situations are intended. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki, 1040 – 1105) understood the Mishna to refer to communal life. A person has an obligation to assume a leadership position in a place where there is no communal leadership.

Although it reflects the wisdom of antiquity, Pirkei Avot has as much impact on our lives today as it did in the era when these statements were formally collected and edited.

It is never easy to rise to challenging situations. In some cases, this may mean assuming the leadership of the community, accepting a chairing role on an organizational committee or volunteering one’s time. In other situations, it may mean standing up against a bully, when no one else is willing to get involved.

*Because Hebrew grammar uses both male and female forms, the default gender is male. The meaning of the verse applies equally to men and women.

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