Moral Courage

Discussion Forum

Living & Learning

Challenge Scenario

In your work or religious community you see a serious problem that needs solving, but you know that some will oppose what you think needs to be done to help everyone. How can you increase your chances of success?


1:  Find Allies. Experts on strategy say that having allies is very often the difference between success and failure. Of course, allies with power in the organization are best, but in any case allies are critical.

2: Prepare the ground. Discuss with your allies what initial actions you can take to get others on your side, or increase your chances of success, before you act. Of course, you are constrained by the urgency of the problem.

3: Focus on objective problems and solutions. Focus on objective problems and positive solutions can disarm opposition, where criticism and personal attacks will inflame it.

Your Experience

Have you taken leadership and tried to improve a situation when nobody else did?  How did it work out? What lessons do you draw?  Share your experience and insights on the discussion forum.

Modern Commentary – Berkson

In a place where there is no person to make a difference,
strive to be that person. (avot 2:6)

This saying translates literally to: “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.” What is meant by “person” is a real human being in the fullest sense: a caring, capable, and responsible person—a person who knows the right thing to do, and does it. Such a person came to be called in Yiddish a “mentsh.” Aaron Feuerstein translates this mishnah using the Yiddish term: “In a place where there isn’t a mentsh, then it’s up to you to be that mentsh.” In Feuerstein’s reading, Hillel is saying: in a place where there is no one else who is taking responsibility to do what should be done, you yourself should step up, take responsibility, and strive to do what needs to be done.


Mr. Feuerstein himself was called “number-one mentsh of the U.S.A.” by former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich because of his kindness and loyalty to his workers after a devastating fire burned down his textile factory, Malden Mills. The fire happened on his 75th birthday, but Feuerstein decided not only to rebuild, but also to keep paying all his workers-—about 2000 people—until the factory could be rebuilt. This kind of courage to do the right thing in difficult circumstances is clearly what Hillel was urging. In fact, Feuerstein says that this mishnah, which his own father quoted regularly, encouraged him in his hour of crisis to take the very risky but compassionate path.

Consciously following the philosophy of balancing interests implicit in Hillel’s earlier three questions (1:14), Feuerstein has tried throughout his career to combine two goals: making a profit and doing good—in other words, making money and being a mentsh.

More: PDF

Classic Commentaries – Goldin

Be strong as the leopard ....(avot 5:23)

He used to say: Do thou love Heaven, be in awe of Heaven, tremble and rejoice at all the commandments (ARN).

With all your might and all your powers strive to serve your Creator. And in those matters where strength is needed, let a man be strong as the leopard; where promptness is needed, let him be swift as the eagle; where a stout heart and courage are needed, let him be brave as the lion; and let him be fleet as the gazelle to do the will of his Father in heaven (Meiri).

Be strong as the leopard: Use your powers to engage in the study of Torah with all your might. . . . The idiom “swift as the eagle” and “brave as the lion” is a Biblical one, as David said of Saul and Jonathan, They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions (II Samuel 1:23) (Vitry).

A student ought to be “strong as the leopard” and not be ashamed to ask questions in the course of study. If he has not understood something, let him not say, “I have understood”; or, if his teacher taught him something once, twice and three times, and he still did not understand, let him say to his master, “Teach it to me once again”—until he understands the matter. And even if his teacher gets angry at him, let the student not be shamed into silence. If a leopard, a creature of no intelligence, uses all his daring to seize his prey, to get food, how much the more should man, a creature of intelligence, use all his daring to acquire life for his soul in the world to come (Aknin).

One should be “strong as the leopard” to upbraid those who transgress and to study Torah (Rabbi Jonah).

More: PDF