The Pain of Inexistence, Part I
Chapter 2, Law 7(d)
"...Neither should a person be one prone to arguments, nor one obsessed
with jealousy or obsessed with lust, nor a pursuer of honor. Likewise did
the Sages state, 'jealousy, lust and [the pursuit of] honor remove a
person from the world' (Pirkei Avos 4:28 (www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-
"The rule of the matter is that a person should follow the middle path in
every quality until all his traits are directed towards the center. And
this is as King Solomon said, 'And all your ways shall be directed'
We have been studying the multi-part Law 7 for a number of weeks. This
week I quote the final section of the Law. With this we will G-d willing
conclude our study of the second chapter.
The Rambam this week lists a number of other negative qualities one should
stay clear of, ones so thoroughly evil and irredeemable the Sages say
they "remove a person from the world."
One issue I feel should be addressed is why the Rambam made special
mention of these particular traits. He already told us in a general sense
that we must always follow the middle path in our ways. And he more
specifically warned us to avoid anger, lust and arrogance (see Law 1:4),
advising that we avoid anger and arrogance to an extreme (Law 2:3). If so,
what was added with this repetition?
The answer is perhaps hinted in the language of the mishna the Rambam
quotes -- that such qualities remove a person from the world. This adds an
important angle to the Rambam's discussion of character development. These
traits are in a class of their own. They are not merely bad; they are life-
destroying. There are many faults a person may suffer from but which are
more or less "manageable"; they do not make life unlivable. Nearly
everything can ruin one's life if taken to ridiculous extremes, but one
can live with being somewhat too stingy, too extroverted, too callous, too
reckless, etc. These traits however require special mention. Because if
you suffer from them, your life is simply not a life -- not for you and
not for those around you.
This is simple enough to see in the qualities listed. The first was one
prone to arguments and contention. Ever come across a person who's always
sulking, who can never be pleased? There's always something to complain
about? If you've ever been in the position of trying to reason with such a
person or cheer him up, you'd have better luck with a brick wall. Such a
person estranges others, sooner or later becoming incapable of being
cheered or inspired. They're too busy taking revenge on mankind -- showing
the world how mistreated and neglected they've been. And at a point it
becomes quite clear that they really do not want to be any different.
The danger of unbridled lust is equally self-evident. A person whose
spends his days in headlong pursuit of his passions really doesn't have a
life. He is unable to develop himself and become who he could be. He is a
mere slave -- to passions which will never truly satisfy, which will in
fact only increase the more a person attempts to gratify them. The Sages,
in their uncanny perception of the human condition, write pithily: "There
is a small limb in a man: if he starves it, it is satisfied; if he
satisfies it, it is hungry" (Talmud Sukkah 52b). Human drives are an
undeniable part of our reality, and as we know the Torah does not tell us
to crush or deny our natures. But as with all aspects of nature, if we do
not control them they will control us.
The same is true of jealousy. One who pines away wishing he were someone
else really doesn't have a life. He fails to develop his own talents -- or
even recognize what they are -- because he spends all his time attempting
to be someone else. Regarding this the Talmud states, "Anyone who sets his
eyes on something which is not [meant] for him, what he seeks is not given
to him, and what is his is taken from him" (Sotah 9a). He will certainly
not get what is not meant for him, and by his own actions, he will deny
himself that which is truly his.
And last but not least, the pursuit of honor is equally empty and
meaningless -- and frustrating. One who doesn't really care about himself
but only about what others think of him, really isn't a person of
substance -- or even of reality. He doesn't actualize himself. He merely
attempts to get others to *think* he's a somebody. And whether or not he
actually receives any honor (which is unlikely), he will never be a
fulfilled person. He will at best attempt to replace true fulfillment with
an illusory sense of esteem.
There's a much deeper idea here which we're beginning to touch upon and
which I'd like to discuss at a little more length. Every human being in
creation lives with a gnawing sense of emptiness. It is the sense of an
unfulfilled drive, the most basic human drive: to feel we exist. It sounds
strange, but until we make something of ourselves, we really do not exist.
Man is merely a created being, an extension of the G-d who fashioned him.
And in a real sense, merely having been created by another does not grant
existence. Life was handed to us for free; we did nothing to earn it. And
unearned existence is not existence at all. We are not really any more
independent of G-d than a painting is from its painter. Independence and
true reality cannot be handed to us by our Creator. And so, we go through
our lives plagued by the sense that we must do something real and lasting,
that we must achieve immortality before we go. We must do something to
justify ourselves -- or otherwise we are literally no more than a figment
of G-d's imagination.
So how does one escape this dilemma? And what happens to one who does not?
There are actually some fascinating angles to this concept, but they'll
have to wait for the next installment, G-d willing next week. Stay tuned!
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org