Chapter 1, Laws 3-4(a)
Reaching Our Own Stars
"The two extremes of each quality are not the proper and worthy path for one
to follow or train himself in. And if a person finds his nature inclining
towards one of them or if he has already accustomed himself in one of them,
he must bring himself back to the good and upright path."
"The upright path is the middle path of all the qualities known to man. This
is the path which is equally distant from the two extremes, not being too
close to either side. Therefore the Sages instructed that a person measure
(lit., estimate) his character traits, directing them in the middle path so
he will be whole.
"How does one do this? He should not be a person of rage who easily angers
nor a corpse with no feelings. Rather, he should be in the middle: He should
only anger over serious matters regarding which anger is appropriate -- so
that the same offense will not be repeated. Similarly, he should only desire
that which his body needs and which human life is impossible without, as the
verse states: 'A righteous man eats to sate his soul' (Proverbs 13:25). So
too, he should exert himself in his occupation only sufficiently to support
himself for the immediate term, as the verse states: 'Modest amounts befit
the righteous' (Psalms 37:16). He should also not be overly miserly nor
should he squander all his money. Rather, he should give charity as he can
afford, and lend appropriately to people who need. He should not be overly
mirthful and uproarious nor dreary and mournful. Rather, he should be
quietly joyful all his days, maintaining a cheerful countenance. And
likewise for all his other qualities. This generally speaking is the way of
the wise. Any person whose character traits all fall in the center, midway
between the extremes, is considered wise."
This week the Rambam elaborates on his first main theme -- that of following
the middle path in life. The Rambam provides us with a number of examples of
precisely what the middle path is.
Probably the most amusing aspect of this section is that the Rambam first
recommends that we follow the middle path in life, not veering to either
extreme, then illustrates it with some very ascetic examples -- virtually
never angering, consuming only the amount of food required for human
survival, working only enough to support ourselves for the short term, etc.
It's clear first of all that the middle path is not the path for the average
person. This is the path of righteousness. But even so, how can the Rambam
honestly refer to these as "middle" paths? Clearly he is advising us to veer
quite heavily towards asceticism?
I believe the simplest answer is that we have a very skewed image of what
"average" behavior is. We tend to look around and take cues from our
environment. Since most people strive for *much* more money than they need,
while some are content to break even, we tend to think of the middle as only
striving for *somewhat* more than we require.
Further, we've become ingrained with the notion that success in life is
measured in financial terms. It's almost inconceivable to us that a certain
amount of income is "enough" -- and at that point we need earn no more. I
know from my own experiences, when I and my family picked up to move to
Israel -- sacrificing a decent, secure position in the high-tech sector in
the process, a question I was hit with was, "Oh, do you have a good job
offer waiting for you?" To many it was almost incomprehensible that I was
sacrificing a good position and moving for reasons other than -- and in
hindsight quite detrimental to -- my financial situation.
The Rambam, however, posits a much simpler definition for "average"
behavior. We may either earn not enough, earn enough, or earn too much. So
the middle path: earning enough. We may never anger, anger appropriately, or
anger too much. So the middle is -- appropriately. Sounds almost teasingly
simple. The fact that human nature invariably tends towards one extreme does
not alter the basic equation. The wise man follows not that which is
conventional wisdom but what he knows to be right.
The Talmud (Yoma 35b) tells us that Hillel, great sage of the Mishna,
obligates all poor people to study Torah. When a poor person departs and
ascends to heaven, he will be asked why he didn't study Torah. If he
responds he was too poor and too busy struggling to make ends meet, they'll
challenge him: "Were you poorer than Hillel?" The Talmud then proceeds to
describe how Hillel used to earn a small amount of money daily, half he
would use to support his family and half would go towards the entrance fee
of the local study hall. One day he was not able to earn anything and was
not allowed into the study hall. He climbed onto the roof, perching himself
above the skylight to listen to the lecture. It happened to be the dead of
winter -- and a heavy snow began to fall. The next morning the sages
discovered Hillel half dead on the roof. They managed to revive him -- and
began to appreciate just who this pauper amongst them was.
The Talmud continues that the scholar R. Elazer ben (son of) Charsom
obligates all rich people to study Torah. If a rich man, after his parting,
claims in heaven that he was too busy with his business ventures to study,
they'll respond, "Were you richer than R. Elazar?" The Talmud proceeded to
describe the vast holdings he controlled, yet, continues the Talmud, he
studied day and night. He was quite content to leave it all in the hands of
his trusted management.
The Talmud writes similarly regarding Joseph. If a handsome man is brought
up to heaven and claims he could not pursue a more spiritual course because
his desires got the better of him, they'll respond, "Were you better-looking
than Joseph?" (A different version: "Were you more challenged than Joseph?"
(See Genesis 39 -- how as a teenager, alone in a foreign land, he repeatedly
resisted the advances of the wife of his master Potiphar -- so much so, that
he is eternally known to us as "Joseph the righteous one" (ha'tzaddik).)
Here too the Talmud describes just a few of Mrs. Potiphar's seductive wiles.
My teacher. R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu) posed a very simple
question on this passage. What does it mean, say, that Hillel obligated the
poor? Either way you look at it, what role did Hillel play? If what he did
is within the ability of the average individual, then we should behave as he
regardless of his precedent! It is within our ability, so, we would suppose,
G-d expects it of us. And if he did what only a superman could, how could we
be expected to follow just because he pulled it off? What bearing does his
righteousness have on us regular folk?
R. Zweig answered with an important principle. Most of us really do not know
what we are capable of. We take our cues from our surroundings. How much
charity can we give? How much time can we devote to study and community
causes? How frugally can we live? We never even really ask ourselves such
questions. We simply look around: what do our neighbors do? If we do as
they, then presumably we are living up to our potential: we are as good as
our peers. Sadly, human beings typically do not strive to be any greater
than their surroundings. In fact, they put much effort into *not* standing
out before the neighbors. And without role models better than we, we
literally *cannot* be any better. It is simply beyond the realm of our
This, explained R. Zweig, is the primary lesson of the greats mentioned in
the Talmud above. Joseph *had* no role model from whom to learn. He achieved
by looking in himself -- certainly not at the lewd society in which in lived
-- and recognizing what he could be. Likewise, Hillel and R. Elazar did not
just follow the crowd. They reached for their own stars. They saw what
*they* were able to do; they were not bound by environment or societal
conventions. And by so doing, we today are blessed with living examples of
just how great a human being can be. G-d *does* expect more of us today
because we have from whom to learn. We know what greatness is -- and what we
too are capable of achieving.
I think this message is crucial for understanding the Rambam. We must not
gauge ourselves based on our surroundings. If we follow what appears the
middle path today, we will lead a mediocre existence indeed. The paths the
Rambam recommends here are average only in an ideal world. Yet these are the
ones we are told to strive for. In a later chapter the Rambam will discuss
the impact environment has on man and the importance of living in a proper
religious environment. Yet even here we must be careful not to borrow
definitions too heavily from our surroundings. The goals set before us are
just as high. It is we who must raise ourselves up to them.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org