Chapter 2, Law 2(a)
Curing the Disease
"How are such people (who are spiritually "sick") healed? A person who
for example has a bad temper should act as follows: If he is struck or
cursed, he should not take it to heart at all ('lo yargish' -- he should
not feel it). He should continue to act in this manner for a long period
of time until his trait of anger is uprooted from his heart. [So too] one
who is arrogant should degrade himself greatly. He should sit in the least
honorable seat and wear worn-out clothes which shame their wearer. He
should do the above and the like until the arrogance is uprooted from him.
Such people may then return to the middle path which is the proper one,
and continue in it for the rest of their lives. So too should a person
behave regarding all character traits. If he is on one extreme he should
move to the opposite extreme and accustom himself to such behavior for a
good while until he may return to the proper middle path."
Last week the Rambam began discussing individuals who have serious
character imbalances, who are strongly inclined towards an extreme in one
of their character traits. The Rambam equated such people to the
physically ill, who may be delirious to the extent that the bitter to them
tastes sweet: they literally view wicked behavior as more attractive and
preferable to the good. To them observing the mitzvos (commandments) is no
recipe for fulfillment. It is at best a sacrifice one makes in order to
earn a share in the World to Come. The Rambam advised that such people go
to the Torah scholars, who are spirit healers just as doctors are body
This week the Rambam presents the basic cure for such people -- that they
go to the opposite extreme until they straighten out. There are a number
of important lessons in this Rambam. Although as always the Rambam's words
speak for themselves and hardly need Dovid Rosenfeld's embellishments, I'd
like to call attention to a number of what I feel are crucial points.
First of all, although the Rambam here describes the proper cure for
character deficiencies, he last week insisted that the spiritually ill
first go to the Torah scholars. This prescription is not a self-help cure;
it is not over-the-counter medication. It must be administered by the
wise. A person who is sick enough to taste bitter as sweet and sweet as
bitter is better off not mixing his own drugs. The famous Talmudic
expression comes to mind (stated regarding illnesses): "One who is
incarcerated cannot free himself from jail" (Brachos 5b). And likewise
comes to mind the story of the heart specialist vacationing at a ski
resort who was found dead of a heart attack with a mostly-finished bottle
of heartburn medication at his side. Only one whose vision is clear and
uncluttered can see the unwell through their illnesses.
Next we arrive at the Rambam's actual prescription -- that such a person
go to the opposite extreme. This introduces a fascinating concept.
Extremism is not healthy in any form. Neither the extremes of arrogance
nor of humility are recommended behavior, yet this is precisely what the
Rambam recommends for the arrogant. He is to act in a way which would
literally not be correct for anyone else -- to go about treating himself
like a doormat -- for he literally has no choice.
There's an important source for this in Scripture. Numbers 6 discusses the
Nazir, a person who takes upon himself a special type of oath. He may not
cut his hair, may not partake of any products of the vine, and may not
come in contact with the dead. (Samson, of Judges 13-16, was a special
sort of Nazir, sanctified to this lifestyle from the womb.) He too is a
person on an extreme. He may drink no wine -- not even for kiddush Friday
nights. Nor may he attend even his mother's funeral. Is his piety
commendable or fanatical? Is this the holy ideal we should all strive for?
Or is the Nazir going too far -- accepting upon himself a (Torah-
sanctioned) oath permitting him to go just slightly beyond the edge?
My understanding of the Nazir is that he is not the ideal. Far from it, he
is one with a problem. He realizes he cannot handle his liquor. Unlike
most of us, he cannot be normal about such pleasures. He cannot
enjoy wine in moderation -- not even where religion requires it. He has a
problem; he cannot restrain himself. And he must take drastic action.
And so, the Torah gives him a prescription: go to an extreme. Don't permit
yourself any wine. Don't attempt to drink in moderation. And don't trust
yourself either: Don't make your own personal resolution to go dry.
Take an oath; invoke the ineffable Name of G-d. Forbid it upon yourself.
Live an extreme lifestyle -- refraining from normal but alluring behaviors
of all types. (It's beyond the scope of this lecture to discuss the "evil"
of other types of behavior from which the Nazir refrains.)
The Torah does not ask such behavior of most of us. It's perfectly okay to
enjoy permissible pleasures within limits. In fact, the Sages generally
frown on people who go overboard in their self-denial. An oft-quoted
passage in the Jerusalem Talmud states it perfectly: "The Torah hasn't
forbidden enough already that you want to add to it?!" (Nedarim 9:1).
Judaism places quite enough restrictions on us, thank you. Attempting to
be more pious than the Pope (the High Priest?) may simply be courting
In addition, the Torah generally frowns on oath taking. Deuteronomy 23:23
states, "If you refrain from taking an oath, you will not bear a sin." Why
take the risk of obligating yourself with a promise you might not keep --
possibly for reasons beyond your control? The Talmud likewise
states, "Whoever takes a [voluntary] oath, even if he fulfills it, is
called sinful" (Nedarim 77b).
But the Nazir is different. He has no choice. And it in fact goes further.
Not only may he not drink wine but he stays away from every product of the
vine -- grapes, raisins, grape juice, even a grape Nehi. ;-) For the Torah
teaches us what the Rambam here expresses. If you want to improve, if you
want to correct a real problem, there is but one solution: go to the
opposite extreme. Uproot the dangerous quality altogether. Don't play with
fire. Don't even handle a match. The slightest memory of that which you
crave may destroy you. The Torah does not require that the rest of us
adopt such practices. Extremism is unhealthy. G-d granted us a beautiful
world. Denying it from us is a denial of human nature and represents a
lack of appreciation for the great gifts G-d has granted mankind. Yet G-d
does include the section of the Nazir in the Torah for He knows the world
isn't perfect. There are some of us who simply must go beyond.
I'd like to wrap this up a bit more next week as well as introduce one
final lesson, one which I actually find most fascinating of all. Please
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org