Chapter 1, Law 1
The First Commandment: Know Yourself
"There are many types of dispositions known to man, each different from the
other, sometimes to an extreme. There is a person who possesses a temper,
who is always angry, and there is one of even disposition (lit., "whose
disposition is relaxed upon him") who never angers, and if he does, angers
only slightly every couple of years. There is a person exceedingly haughty
(lit., "of high heart"), and there is one of very lowly spirit. There is one
of unbounded desires, whose soul is never sated with pursuing his passions.
And there is one of extremely pure body, who does not even desire the little
his body requires. There is one of covetous soul (lit., "of wide soul"), who
will not be sated with all the wealth of the world, as the verse states,
"One who loves money will never be sated with money" (Koheles 5:9). And
there is one more limited, for whom it suffices even small insufficient
amounts, and who will not even pursue all he requires. There is one who
afflicts himself with hunger and gathers in everything, who will not eat so
much as a penny's worth of his own except with the greatest of difficulty.
And there is one who knowingly squanders all his available possessions.
Along these lines are all other dispositions, such as lively vs. mournful,
stingy vs. generous, cruel vs. compassionate, faint-hearted vs. courageous,
and all the like."
First of all, welcome all! I gave a brief introduction to Maimonides
(henceforth "the Rambam") and this work in my welcoming e-mail.
The Rambam begins by listing just a few of the possible personality types
known to man. He is, of course, only introducing an idea at this point, yet
I feel there are a few striking points already.
The famous dictum the Rambam will introduce this chapter is the importance
of pursuing what is known as the Golden Mean -- the middle path in life, not
veering too closely to either extreme. Don't be a hothead or an ice cube;
don't be too hard and unfeeling or too soft and sensitive; don't be too
high-strung or too easygoing. Extremism is dangerous in almost any context
and form -- including, to be sure, extremism in tolerance. King Solomon
tells us further that neither should we be too righteous (Koheles 7:16).
There are times to be pious, but as with anything in life, there is
religiousness to a fault. Religion, piety, asceticism can all be used as
weapons of cruelty and intolerance, and as we all know too well, the most
vicious and heinous of crimes can be committed (without shred of remorse)
when justified under the banner of fighting G-d's holy war.
This, however, is a subject for later. For now I'd like to make a more basic
observations. The Rambam begins his discussion here by observing that
different personality types exist. And I feel this in itself is crucial. The
Rambam did not jump in by stating how we *should* behave. He began by making
that most critical first observation -- that people are different. Before a
person can determine how he *should* be, he must first recognize whom he
*now* is. What is my starting point? What are my challenges? Who am I and
what must I overcome to reach my goals?
And this is, of course, not just a matter of knowing what challenges I must
overcome. I must know who I am, and only then can I pursue my own ideal
middle path. For the "middle" is not the same for any two individuals. The
Talmud (Ta'anis 22a) records that Elijah the Prophet told a Torah scholar
that a certain two individuals were destined for a special portion in the
World to Come. When the scholar inquired from the two individuals what they
did, they explained that (in addition to another merit) they were comedians,
and if they would come across an unhappy person, they would humor him until
he cheered up. Clearly, such people knew that their specialty was in good
cheer and humor, and they used their special talent to make the world a
Likewise, the Talmud (Shabbos 156a) writes that if a person has a
predilection towards violence, he should become a surgeon, a shochet (one
who ritually slaughters animals, making them kosher), or a mohel (one who
performs circumcisions) -- for otherwise he'll find far less constructive
outlets for his violent tendencies.
Another related source comes to mind. In Proverbs 22:6, King Solomon
exhorts: "Instruct a lad according to his way; also when he is old he will
not depart from it." The Vilna Gaon (R. Eliyahu Kramer, 18th Century leader
of Lithuanian Jewry), in his commentary, explains that every child has his
"way" -- his natural predilections. There could be no greater tragedy than
attempting to raise every child in the same mold and image -- in vain
attempt to mass produce children who all look and behave alike.
Continues the Vilna Gaon, some have a predilection towards violence. The
Torah does not ask such people to go into accounting, crushing their natures
to fit a socially-imposed mold. They should *use* their natures -- for
surgery, meat preparation, or even more ideally to perform circumcisions.
But their natures will come out one way or the other, if not in a person's
youth when he is subject to his parents, as soon as he discovers who he
Continues the Gaon, King David himself was of red complexion (I Samuel
16:12) -- signifying a taste for blood. This was so marked that Samuel the
Prophet, when sent by G-d to David's parents to anoint the future king of
Israel, summarily dismissed David -- as soon as he saw his ruddy face. Such
could never be the face of G-d's anointed! (This brings to mind a quote I'm
not quite old enough to remember: "Would you buy a used car from this man?") :-)
Nevertheless, David persevered. He took his violent nature and *used* it. He
was not a man of destructive violence but a fighter for G-d -- who
unflinchingly fought G-d's holy wars, battling and defeating the enemies of
When David is told by G-d, "You will not build a house to My name, for much
blood have you spilled upon the ground before Me" (I Chronicles 22:8), the
Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shmuel 145) comments that he feared he had become
offensive to G-d on account of his battles. G-d responded: "I swear by your
life that the people you have slain were as sacrifices before Me." To be
sure, the Temple's construction must be completed by a different sort of
person -- by David's son, the scholar-king Solomon, to whom the world over
paid reverential homage. But the foundation of such world peace had to be
built upon the destruction of those who would not accept G-d's sovereignty.
And the slaying of sinners of the father may well have been more precious to
G-d than the myriad sacrifices his son would one day offer.
This, concludes the Vilna Gaon, is the true intent of "Instruct a lad
according to his way." We must see and recognize our children's natures (as
well as our own), never ignoring them or attempting to reshape them into the
form we imagine most popular or socially acceptable. For if we attempt to
mold our child into a form not natural for him, he may listen when he is
young and scared of us, but when he is old and free of our tyranny he'll
depart from it -- for neither you nor he can change nature.
It has been observed by survey-takers that surveys performed on adolescents
are notoriously unreliable -- for the simple reason that when asked to state
their opinions, attitudes, interests, or values, (even anonymously), people
at that age group are too busy looking over their shoulders: what is the
most "in" answer, how would they like to remake themselves -- not what do
they actually believe. (This seems to be particularly marked in
image-conscious Americans.) And so tragically, we refuse to truly ask
ourselves what our individual strengths and talents are until we're well
beyond our most productive years.
Thus, the first great lesson of the Rambam. It all begins with knowing
ourselves. We must understand our particular strengths and weaknesses. From
that vantage point, certainly we are enjoined to avoid extremism and to ease
ourselves towards the center. But our journey must begin with
self-knowledge. For only when we know whom we are today can we begin the
journey towards true fulfillment.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org