The Power of the Human Eye,
Maimonides, Laws of De'os - Chapter 2, Law 7(b)
"...Neither should a person be overly greedy (lit., 'one of a wide soul'),
obsessed with the pursuit of riches, nor one lazy and neglectful of work.
Rather he should be one with a good eye, [of] little work and [who
instead] 'works' in Torah study. And the little which he does acquire
(lit., 'which is his portion') he should be happy with."
The Rambam is continuing to list different qualities, recommending that we
follow the middle path in all our ways.
This week the Rambam discusses our attitude towards earning money, how we
must be neither too greedy and materialistic, nor too lazy. As one point
of introduction, I feel the mere fact that the Rambam discusses our
attitude towards work in these laws is telling. We would tend to think how
hard one works is not so much an ethical matter, relating to one's
character traits. It is more a religious issue: How should one divide his
time between his occupation and Torah study. I would have more expected to
find such a law in the Rambam's next section -- the Laws of Torah Study.
(See in fact there Ch. 3, Laws 9-11.)
In truth, however, the Rambam rightly sees imbalances in our working
habits as stemming from character flaws. As we'll see below, with the
wrong overall attitude a person is liable to work way too much or too
little, depending how he responds to the emotional challenges involved in
earning a living.
What struck me most when reading this law is the Rambam's interjection of
a good eye. Rather than working too much or too little, writes the Rambam,
one should have a good eye and only work that which is necessary. At first
blush it seemed an unexpected turn of phrase. I would have expected the
Rambam to advise us to be satisfied with our lot or to realize that G-d
provides us with that which we truly need.
Furthermore, a good eye would seem to mean one which looks favorably upon
others -- meaning, a person who is not jealous of others and their
successes. That would perhaps be an appropriate solution to overworking if
the only reason we overwork is to keep up with the Joneses. But in my
humble opinion this simply isn't true. Most workaholics fall in love with
their careers for their own sakes. They seek fulfillment and/or prestige
by building their businesses, conducting their research, rising in their
positions, or just doing what they do best.
Alternatively, a person can fall in love with money for its own sake --
not only because *they* have more, but because of an inherent drive for
riches. As King Solomon puts it, "One who love money will not be sated
with money" (Ecclesiastes 5:9). It's an open-ended drive. If so, how can
the Rambam recommend a good eye as the solution to overworking (and
certainly for underworking (if that's a word))? Isn't man's drive for
money far more sinister and far more complex?
I believe there's a fascinating insight here, which is based upon a deeper
understanding of the concept of a good eye. We read in the Book of Ruth
how Ruth, the righteous Moabite convert, accompanies her aged and
impoverished mother-in-law Naomi to the Land of Israel. Upon their
arrival, she goes out to the fields to collect the gleanings left for the
poor in order to support them. She is then met by Boaz, relative of Naomi,
who offers that she glean exclusively in his fields. (He later instructs
his workers to leave gleanings specially behind for her.) He also
instructs her to keep her eyes on his field, following behind the reapers
The Iggeres Shmuel (a Kabbalist of 16th Century Constantinople) explains
that Boaz specifically wanted so righteous a person to lay her eyes on his
field, because her "good eye" would cause a blessing to descend upon it.
King Solomon states, "One with a good eye will be blessed" (Proverbs
22:9) -- which the Talmud understands to additionally imply a good eye
will bring blessing (see Sotah 38b). What is the idea behind this?
There's another passage in the Talmud which I believe sheds light on this.
The Talmud (Bava Metsiah 42a) writes that one who is going to measure his
store of grain may pray to G-d that his grain "increase". He may not,
however, do so once he has already measured it, for a blessing only
descends on that which is hidden from the eye.
The simple idea of this is that when something is hidden from view, G-d
can just as easily make 20 bushels into 30 bushels. Thus, we have the
right to pray that G-d make our supply of grain magically and miraculously
increase -- for such miracles are as effortless to G-d as the Laws of
Nature themselves. After we have counted, however, we may not ask G-d for
such, since He does not lightly perform open miracles in the world.
I have, however, my doubts if this truly is the meaning of the Talmud.
Does G-d play around with nature as soon as our backs are turned? Would He
perform an open, albeit unobserved, miracle at the slightest human prayer
(not, of course, that human prayer is so slight). Perhaps -- and it
certainly isn't "difficult" for G-d to do so. But I don't particularly get
that impression from many other statements of the Sages. The Mishna
(Brachos 9:3) states that if one's wife is pregnant and he prays that she
have a boy it is a "wasteful" prayer -- since there is no way to change
that which is already determined. Evidently, G-d would not perform such a
miracle lightly even with our prayers -- even though, of course, the
embryo and its gender are hidden from sight.
Even more fundamentally, the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 5:5) states that at
creation G-d made a "condition" with certain objects that they perform
miracles at a determined time in the future. G-d thus made an
explicit "agreement" with the Red Sea that it would split for Israel, with
the sun and moon that they would stand still for Joshua (see Joshua 10),
with fire that it would not consume Chananya, Misha'ail and Azariah
(Daniel 3), etc. G-d thus does not take the Laws of Nature lightly. Such
overrides can and do occur, but nature is not so casually cast aside by
the G-d who set it in motion.
Based on the above, I believe that there is actually a far more profound
concept at play here. As we'll see G-d willing next time, the key lies in
understanding the true power of the human eye.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org