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
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, only desiring that which is necessary for human life, only
working enough to support ourselves for the immediate, 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.
(My Pirkei Avos readers will note that I used the same example in my other
class this week. It was actually pure coincidence. I wrote this class well
over a year ago -- in vain attempt to get a head start in this series (so
I'm not writing it under the gun as I did so many years for Pirkei Avos).
(The head start for better or worse is quickly evaporating.) Actually,
perhaps this "coincidence" occurred because the good L-rd wants to give
me a little reminder of the importance of being satisfied with little --
something I unfortunately need to know every month when that paycheck
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 career and
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'tsaddik).) 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 folks?
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 us, we literally cannot be any better. It is simply
beyond the realm of our imagination.
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. 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 achieve. 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