If I am here…

תניא: אמרו עליו על הלל הזקן, כשהיה שמח בשמחת בית השואבה אמר כן: “אם אני כאן, הכל כאן. ואם איני כאן. מי כאן?”

A beraisa: They said about Hillel the Elder, when he was happy during Simchas Beis haShoeivah would say like this:

If I am here, then all are here.
And if I am not here, who is here?

- Sukkah 53a

הלל הזקן כד הוה חמי לון עבדין בפחז הוה אמר לון, “דאנן הכא, מאן הכא?  ולקילוסן הוא צריך?  והכתיב (דניאל, ז) ‘אלף אלפין ישמשוניה וריבות ריבויין קדמוהי יקומון.’”  כד הוה חמין לון עבדין בכושר, הוה אמר, “די לא נן הכא, מאן הכא? שאף על פי שיש לפניו כמה קילוסין, חביב הוא קילוסן של ישראל יותר מכל!”  מה טעמא (ש”ב, כג) “ונעים זמירות ישראל” (תהלים, כב) “יושב תהלות ישראל.”

Hillel the Elder, when he would see them celebrating frivolously [at Simchas Beis haShoeivah] would say to them, “Just because we are here, who is here? And does He [Hashem] really need our praise? Doesn’t it say, ‘Thousands of thousands serve Him, and myriads of myriads come before Him.”

When he saw them acting appropriately [in their celebrations], he would say, “If we were not here, who would be here? Because even though [Hashem] has before Him uncountable praise,  the praise by Israel is dearer for Him than all!”

What is his source? “Pleasant are the songs of Israel” [and] “Who ‘sits’ upon the praises of Israel.”

-Yerushalmi Sukkah 5:4 (vilna 24a)

The two talmuds have different versions of this enigmatic statement by Hillel.

Rashi explains the Bavli’s version as Hillel speaking on behalf of the Shechinah. He is warning the masses not to sin through overindulgence in the celebration. Because only if the Shechinah is there will all come to celebrate. If sins drive the Divine Presence away, there would be no Simchas Beis haShoeivah to enjoy altogether!

The Netziv (Shemos ch. 5) has a different translation, but a similar theme — it is also a warning not to sin. Hillel was saying that as long as he was there to keep an eye on the festivities, all would be able to remain and celebrate. But if he were not there…

An interesting difference between that version and the Yerushalmi’s is in number. According to the Yerushalmi, his warning against excess was phrased as “If we are here…” Do not get carried away with the celebrations — all of us here together are nothing compared to the numbers of the heavenly retinue. It is only when the praise is fitting that the quality of it coming from the Jewish people offsets the quantity of those glorifying the Almighty.

All of which brings to mind Rav Shimon Shkop’s treatment of a different enigmatic statement by the self-same Hillel.

In my opinion, this idea is hinted at in Hillel’s words, as he used to say, “If I am [not] for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?” It is fitting for each person to strive to be concerned for himself. But with this, he must also strive to understand that “I for myself, what am I?” If he constricts his “I” to a narrow domain, limited to what the eye can see [is him], then his “I” – what is it? Vanity and ignorable. But if his feelings are broader and include [all of] creation, that he is a great person and also like a small limb in this great body, then he is lofty and of great worth.
ולדעתי מרומז ענין זה במאמרו של הלל ע״ה שהיה אומר “אם [אין] אני לי מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי מה אני?” היינו שראוי לכל אדם להתאמץ לדאוג תמיד בעד עצמו, אבל עם זה יתאמץ להבין שאני לעצמי מד, אני, שאם יצמצם את ה״אני״ שלו בחוג צר כפי מראית עין, אז ״אני״ זה מה הוא, הבל הוא ובאין נחשב, אבל אם תהיה הרגשתו מאומתת, שכללות הבריאה הוא האדם הגדול והוא ג״כ כאבר קטן בגוף הגדול הזה, אז רם ונשא גם ערכו הוא

According to Rav Shimon, to Hillel the word “ani“, “I”, has a specific technical meaning.  In the ideal, “ani“, a person’s sphere of concern and self-interest, can include the entire world.

“If I am here, then all are here”, indeed. And thus the language difference between the Bavli’s “ani” and the Yerushalmi’s “anan” are not all that far apart. In both versions, Hillel saw himself as that part of the whole that was the “governor” of the engine, that keeps it from running too fast and breaking itself apart. And so the Yerushalmi has him speaking of the whole Jewish people, and the Netziv says Hillel was referring to his own role within the people.

But from this perspective that all are giving variations of the same theme in Hillel’s words, it is Rashi’s words that become the most sublime. When does the Shechinah join us? When everyone’s “ani” is integrated into the whole, and we come together not as a group of celebrants, but as a single celebrating Jewish People. It is this “im Ani kan / anan hakhah” which outshines thousands upon thousands and myriads of myriads of angels.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 6: Refinement – Part 1

AS A BEGINNING OF this preparation, so that one is ready to acquire Torah, the Torah requires specific conditions. The first condition is toil and contemplation, as our sages explain “‘If in my statues you go’ (Vayiqra 26:3) … that you should be toiling in the Torah.” (Rashi ad loc, quoting Sifra 26:2) And other things required for acquiring Torah.
ולראשית ההכשרה לזה שיהיה ראוי לקנין תורה, הצריכה תורה תנאים מיוחדים, ותנאי הראשון הוא העמל והיגיעה, כמו שדרשו חז״ל “‘אם בחוקתי תלכו’ -  שתהיו עמלים בתורה”, ושאר ענינים הדרושים לקנין תורה.

In this section we will see Rav Shimon explore the relationship between learning Torah, refining middos, and the life-mission of sanctifying oneself to the task of being good to others.

In an earlier essay an earlier essay (published in Daas Torah: Child and Domestic Abuse vol. I by R’ Daniel Eidensohn pp. 220-233), I compared the Vilna Gaon’s and R’ Chaim Volzhiner’s approaches to the relationship between Torah learning and Middos development. To quote that section:

Judaism’s claim is not that Torah and mitzvos by themselves produce moral people, or that following Torah with mitzvos is a complete definition of living according to the Truth.  [This claim was substantiated by quotes from the gemara earlier in the essay.] In other words, there is a preparation necessary for one to become ennobled by Torah, and if someone does not engage in this preparation, they are likely to abuse its teachings and experience spiritual poison.

The Vilna Gaon, as quoted in Even Sheleimah, is specific as to what this preparation entails:

 The relationship of Torah to the soul:  A comparison to rain for the ground, it causes what was planted there to grow, whether a sam hachaim or a sam hamaves, a poison.  Similarly, Torah causes what is in his heart to grow.  If what is in his heart is good, his yir’ah will grow; if what is in his heart is a “root sprouting poison weed and wormwood” then the bitterness that is in his head will grow.  As it is written, “the righteous will walk in it, and sinners will stumble in it” (Hoshea 14:10, as explained by Chazal), and as it is written, “To those who go to the right side of it, it is a medicine of life; to those who go to its left, it is a deadly poison,” (Shabbos 88b).

Therefore, one must cleanse one’s heart every day, before study and after it, of impure attitudes and middos, with a fear of sin and with good deeds.

This [process] is euphemistically called “going to the bathroom.”  It was about this that they hinted when they said, “Going to the bathroom is greater than all of it,” (Berakhos 8a) and, “Whoever spends a long time in the bathroom, it is lofty,” (Ibid 55a).  Also, when they said, “Get up early and go, in the evening go” (Ibid 62a), they intend to say that in his youth and in his old age a man should not distance himself a great distance from his Creator so that he cannot be helped.

One must inspect which evil middah – characteristic – is strong within him, and after that, clean it out.  Unlike like those men of desire who wallow in what they want, and the desire grows greater.  It requires much slyness, to be “sly in yir’ah,” (Abaye, Ibid 17a) in opposition to, “the snake was sly,” (Bereishis 3:1).  One who is lazy in weeding out an evil middah is not helped by all the legal fences and protections that he practices.  For with any disease which is not cured from within… even the fence of the Torah, which protects and saves, will be useless because of his laziness (c.f. Rava, Sotah 21a; Bei’ur haGra Mishlei 24:31, 19:15, 25:4).  (Even Sheleima 1:11)

The Gaon compares learning Torah to watering a garden.  If you start with desirable plants, it will produce healthier, more beautiful plants.  But if you water weeds, you will only produce more weeds.  Learning Torah without attention to character refinement will simply produce more forceful personalities with bad middos.  As such, the Vilna Gaon addresses our dilemma from the end of section III, shedding light on the underlying causes of our crippling lack of direction, which prevents us from using the Torah for the proper purpose.  To gain holiness through the Torah, there is a prerequisite to consciously work on eliminating our destructive middos.  We must have a program to “weed our gardens” before watering our souls with Torah.  This is how we join Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s class of the meritorious, for whom the Torah is a sam hachaim.

Rav Yisrael Salanter makes a similar point with a different metaphor. He compares poor middos to being a burglar. If a robber approaches a someone’s home without any tools, he isn’t particularly dangerous. However, if he comes bringing a lock-pick, weapons and other tools of the trade, he poses a threat to society. Similarly, someone with poor middos but no Torah does far less damage than someone who arms those bad middos with learning. Perhaps Rav Yisrael is referring to all the damage people can do when they justify their actions by attributing their destructive decisions to the Will of G-d or justifying them as really being for the best. The Gra contrasts Torah with and without middos, Rav Yisrael addresses bad middos with or without Torah, but both discuss how adding Torah to poor character makes things worse rather than better.

Returning to my earlier essay:

Do we make this a conscious goal in our current lifestyles?

The Vilna Gaon’s student, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, offers his own metaphor for the relationship between yir’as Shamayim and Torah:

According to the vast arrangement of the silo of yir’ah that the person prepared for himself, it is through that arrangement that the grain of Torah will be able to enter and be protected within him, according to how much he strengthened his silo.

It is [like] a father who divides grain for his sons.  He divides and gives each one a measure of grain to match what the son’s silo can hold, which he [the son] prepared beforehand.  For even if the father wishes and his hand is open to give him more, the son cannot receive more since his silo is not big enough to hold more.  So too the father cannot now give him more.  And if the son did not prepare even a small silo, then also the father can not give him anything at all – for he has no guarded place where it will remain with him.

So too Hashem, may His name be blessed:  His “Hand” is open, as it were, to constantly bestow every person according to his reward with much wisdom and extra understanding – when it will be preserved by them and will be tied onto the slate of their hearts.  Everything [is given] according to the volume of one’s “silo.” And if a person does not prepare even a small silo, which is that he does not, heaven forbid, have within him any yir’ah whatsoever for Him, may He be blessed, so too He, may He be blessed, will not bestow any wisdom at all, since it will not be preserved by him.  For his Torah would become disgusting, heaven forbid, as our Rabbis, whose memories are a blessing, said.  It is about this that the verse says, “the beginning of wisdom is yir’as Hashem,” (Tehillim 111).  (Nefesh haChaim book IV, ch. 5)

The Vilna Gaon taught that without eliminating one’s poor middos first, Torah will reinforce those flaws rather than help refine the soul.  Of our two descriptions of our communal problem, he is speaking in terms of the second one; the Torah is a tool for us to become the holy people Hashem created us to be, but the tool has to be used appropriately or else woefully limited.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner says, without first developing yir’ah, the positive middah of keeping the importance of G-d and the role He made us for in mind, we will not retain the Torah either, even on a basic level.  His metaphor is akin to our first formulation – that without yir’as Shamayim, we cannot even embody the Torah we are trying to study, and thus only full implementation with developed yir’ah can even be termed true observance of Torah.

Refinement requires conscious effort in and of itself.  Without first “weeding” and “building the silo,” we are left with nothing.

Until this point, Rav Shimon was arguing from a variant of the Vilna Gaon’s position — with the only difference being between the Vilna Gaon’s refined middos and the Shaarei Yosher’s person capable of bestowing good “now and in the future”.  Both define the goal of a good Jew in terms of being a good person, and how Torah study is part of accomplishing that.

Now Rav Shimon switched to a point more similar to Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s. Not only does one need Torah to “water” one’s good middos, or to expand one’s “ani” to include their soul, and expansively more and more people, but without this ethical background, you won’t get anywhere with your Torah study, either.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 5: Sharing – Conclusion

This is also how it works with the emanation/assistance, the dew of heaven, of acquiring wisdom. Every person is worthy of grace from the One above some increase in wisdom, to take root in his soul some deep root. This attainment would not be given for he himself, only to be like a disburser to distribute it to every person for whom it is appropriate. If he guards this duty to teach whomever it is appropriate to teach, then he will be further enriched and made like a disburser over a greater treasure than this. Perhaps one can use this idea to explain “and from my students, more than anyone” (Ta’anis 7a). Aside from the natural aspect of it, there is also the means of charity and spiritual tithing helping it ascend and grow, like the means with regard to tithing money. So it seems to me
וכן הוא בשפע טל שמים של קניני החכמה, שראוי לכל איש שחננו העליון ית׳ איזה יתרון חכמה, להשריש בנפשו שורש עמוק, שקנין זה לא ניתן לו לעצמו, רק להיות כגזבר על זה לחלק למי שראוי לזה, ואם ישמור כראוי תפקיד זה ללמד למי שראוי ללמד אז יתעלה למשרה גדולה מזה, ויתעשר יותר ויהיה גזבר על אוצר גדול מזה, ואולי יש להסביר ענין זה מה שאמרו ומתלמידי יותר מכולם, שמלבד ענין הטבעי שבזה, הנה סגולת הצדקה והמעשר הרוחני מועיל לזה להתעלות ולהתגדל, כמו בסגולת מעשר כספים כך נראה לי.

The quote from Ta’anis 7a is an excerpt referencing a relatively well known Talmudic dictum:

Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said: Why are the words of Torah compared to a tree, as it is written, “It is a tree of life for those who cling to it?” This it to teach that just as a small piece of wood ignites a large one, so too with Torah scholars – the younger ones sharpen the minds of the older ones. This is what Rabbi Chanina [meant when] he would say: “I have learned much from my teachers, and from my colleagues more than from my teachers, but from my students most of all.”


Rav Shimon here tracks the pasuq of Ve’ahavta (Devarim 6:5) in Shema: וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה’” אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ, וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ — And you shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, with all your life, and with all your resources.” Presuming two things inherent in my translation: First, that “levavekha” doesn’t refer only to the heart as the seat of the emotions, but in a more classical sense, where the heart, the core of the person, is thought of as including both feelings and thoughts. And second, that “nafshekha” is the term for soul being used here specifically because it carries connotations of the soul as life-force.

First Shaarei Yosher discusses sharing one’s wealth, that Hashem gives wealth to the community, and being wealthy might be part of one’s role as part of the community. Thus, someone who wishes to be charged with this task should develop the appropriate skills and prove themselves worthy guardians of the community’s wealth. (And then it is proper for them to enjoy their own wealth as well.) This is loving G-d, “bekhol me’odekha.”

In the previous installment, R’ Shimon refers to Nachum Ish Gamzu’s sickbed, and how his very limbs, his life — and thus his nefesh — is also only of value to the extent it is used to bestow Hashem’s good on others.

Now we get to levavekha. Thoughts and emotions too get their value from being shared. Not kept to the core self, but shared with the broader “ani“.


Rav Shimon Shkop’s attitude toward sharing, tzedaqah and chessed seems to fit this Yerushalmi I encountered several months back. See the second answer in Shabbos 14:1 (vilna daf 74b):

כתיב (תהילים מט[:ב]) “שִׁמְעוּ זֹאת כָּל הָעַמִּים, הַאֲזִינוּ כָּל יֹשְׁבֵי חָלֶד.” ר’ אחא אמר ר’ אבהו ורבנן ח”א למה הוא מושל כל באי העולם בחולדה.  אלא לפי שכל מה שיש ביבשה יש בים הרבה מינים בים מה שאין ביבשה ואין חולדה בים.  וחורנה אמר למה הוא מושל כל באי העולם בחולדה אלא מה החולדה הזאת גוררת ומנחת ואינה יודעת למי היא מנחת כך הן כל באי העולם גוררין ומניחין גוררין ומניחין ואינן יודעין למי הן מניחין.

It is written, “Listen to this all the nations, give ear all the inhabitants of Chaled [literally: weasel].” (Tehillim 49:2)

Rav Acha said: Rav Avohu and the Rabbis [both expounded on why this verse calls the world chaled, weasel].

One said: Why does He compare all who come into the world to a weasel? Only because any [species] found on dry land is found in the sea. There are many species in the sea which are not on land. But there is no weasel in the sea.

And the other said: Why does He compare all who come into the world to a weasel? Only that just as this weasel gathers and puts away, and doesn’t know for whom she is putting [things] away, so too all the people of the world gather and put away, gather and put away, and do not know for whom they put away.

So, another way to put this section of this introduction: What are you — a man or a weasel?

To be a person means not only to realize that one’s “ani” includes body, soul, other people, to the ends of creation, but to value what one has oneself for it’s potential to aid that “ani” and not just my narrow “atzmi” self.