Chapter 1, Law 7
"And how does a person accustom himself in these qualities (i.e., the
middle path of each character trait) until he acquires them? He should act
in accordance with the middle path multiple times, repeatedly behaving in
such ways until such deeds become easy, effortless, and ingrained in his
"Since the attributes by which G-d is described (see earlier, Law 6)
constitute the middle path which we must follow, this middle path is known
as the 'way of G-d' ('derech Hashem'). This is the path our father Abraham
instructed his descendants in, as the verse states, 'For I cherished him,
for he will command his children and his household after him, and they
will observe the 'way of G-d' to do righteousness and justice' (Genesis
18:19). And one who follows in this path brings goodness and blessing to
himself, as the verse states (ibid.), 'in order that G-d bring upon
Abraham that which He has spoken regarding him' (i.e., the rewards He
promised to bring)."
We are now up to the final law of the Rambam's first chapter. The Rambam
first states how one acquires good character traits -- simply by
accustoming himself to act according to them. The Rambam then broadens his
discussion by stating that such is the way of G-d and the way our
forefather Abraham instructed his descendants to behave.
Before we begin discussing this law, it should be noted that the Rambam is
not discussing someone who has a problem. The person who finds he has a
strong propensity to one extreme of a given trait -- say he knows he has a
temper or he finds himself extremely tight-fisted -- requires a much
stronger cure than simply following the middle path a number of times.
Such a person is the subject of the beginning of Chapter 2; we will
discuss it G-d willing in future classes.
Today we are discussing the average individual, who say isn't extremely
angry or tight-fisted, but who requires some conditioning to truly make
the healthy, middle path instinctive to him.
There's an important insight here -- one which has important ramifications
in the world of psychology. We can change ourselves through our behavior.
Act in a certain way -- whether we mean it or not -- and it will become
second nature. We will not only accustom ourselves to act that way, but it
will become who we are as well. It is in our hands to change our hearts.
This, as we know, is a basic issue of debate among schools of psychology.
To what extent is man a product of conditioning and environment? Can a
person train himself to behave a certain way -- and actually become that
way? Or is man a product of more basic and primordial forces? And forcing
himself to behave a certain way is merely a dishonest and futile charade,
and a denial of his true nature?
Regarding this Jewish tradition is fairly clear -- although with an
important qualifier. The Rambam states it here simply: Behave a certain
way and it will be you. And further, there is nothing dishonest
about not being true to your nature -- or by pretending to be something
you are not until it becomes ingrained. One day, after 120, we'll be
judged on what we did with our lives, not in how "honest" we were
about being ourselves. Train yourself, sublimate your baser desires, and
you will be happy and fulfilled in both this world and the next.
There is another important source relevant to this discussion. The Sefer
HaChinuch is a classic Jewish work on the 613 Commandments. ("The Book of
Instruction," written by a 13th Century Spanish scholar; the precise
authorship is uncertain.) He coins one of the famous expressions in
rabbinic writing regarding this: "A person is acted upon by his actions"
(Mitzvah 16). We are who we feign to be -- certainly not immediately, but
slowly, as the years progress and our behavior becomes ingrained. Nazi
officials, under the pretext of following orders, quickly became the most
bestial and sadistic of killers. And we too, if we act a certain way,
whether better or worse, become how we act -- almost regardless of what's
in our hearts. Ultimately, we are our deeds, not our guilt-ridden hearts.
The Sefer HaChinuch uses this principle to explain why Judaism, unlike
many other religions, is so commandment-heavy. Virtually every aspect of
our lives is guided and regulated. We are constantly occupied with and
surrounded by mitzvos (commandments) -- in our dwellings, our dress, our
eating habits. Why such an emphasis on form over spirit? Isn't man
naturally good? Why can't we just be ourselves and let our natural
goodness shine through?
The answer is that we are naturally good, but goodness does not
exist in a vacuum. We can easily ruin it, and having a good heart -- which
the vast majority of us certainly do possess -- will not do us an ounce of
good if our deeds corrupt and pervert. Instead, our Torah gave us the true
recipe for improvement and self-fulfillment: act as if you're
noble -- tell your body to fake it. For it will not long be a fake.
Ultimately, both mind and body will follow suit.
Thus, much of self-improvement according to Judaism requires training our
bodies. Don't spend a lot of effort trying to reach your soul --
intellectually convincing yourself that the ethical life is the one most
fine. Our souls are not really within our reach; they're untouchable and
difficult to influence. And most important, even if we develop our
intellects to appreciate certain values, it will do us very little good if
our bodies just aren't interested.
A probably apocryphal and of course impossible-to-verify story I once
heard about Aristotle is that he was once caught behaving in a way utterly
inconsistent with his philosophical beliefs. When questioned about his
behavior, he responded, "I'm not Aristotle now." Of course, I take no
responsibility for the story (it sounds too "convenient" to be true), but
it can certainly be said that all the profound, well-developed
philosophical beliefs in the world together with a subway token will get a
fellow one ride on the subway and little more.
Equally significant, we don't really need to "teach" our souls how they
should behave. They know. Intellectualism is not really the path to
self-improvement -- simply because our souls deep down know what is right.
Most of the time, if not all of the time, the enemy is our bodies. They
have to be forced, to be trained and housebroken, and then it will all
begin to jell.
And even further, if let our bodies run wild -- claiming we are
being "honest" with ourselves (in acting like animals -- which we've
just "honestly" become), our souls and intellects will quickly fall into
step. We'll concoct all sorts of wild theories rationalizing our behavior.
Our minds will adopt any and all absurd and intellectually-shoddy notions
available in order to justify how we want to behave. We once talked about
this concept in Pirkei Avos (Chapter 2 Mishna 13b) -- how our minds and
opinions are ultimately shaped by our desires. Holocaust denial and the
theory of Evolution are two excellent examples of this.
The Talmud likewise states it succinctly: "The Children of Israel knew
idolatry had no true substance; they served it only in order to permit
public promiscuity" (Sanhedrin 63b). Intellectual rebellion was nothing
more than a front for illicit sex. (The 60's come to mind at this point.)
Thus, to conclude, Judaism believes very strongly in behavior as the
primary determinant of who we truly are. Of course, we must keep in mind
some of the lessons of past weeks -- that our goal is to discover our
natures, working with them rather than against them. Yet our goal must be
sublimation -- discovering our strengths and predilections and devoting
them heavenwards, rather than letting our bodies call the shots for us.
For this truly is the determining factor between man and animal. We
call the shots; our minds and intellects determine how we behave. And not
long after, our bodies too will fall into step.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org