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.

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