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, soft-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 brighter place.
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.
One other 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 really is.
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! (Many of us are 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 man of violence but fighter for G-d -- who fought G-d's holy
wars, battling and defeating the enemies of Israel. 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
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 to him, he may listen
when he is young and awed by us, but when he is old and free of our
tyranny he'll depart from it -- for neither you nor he can change nature.
I remember reading years ago the observation 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 ease ourselves
towards the center. But our journey must begin with self-knowledge. For
only when we know who we are today can we begin the journey towards true
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org