Chapter Four (Part 11)
Just as there have always been genuine innovators, there have likewise
always been out-and-out imitators. And in fact Rambam dubs the (well
meaning) people who did what the truly pious did when they went a bit to
an extreme, "imitators" -- copycats.
Now, that's a curious accusation. He could have labeled them "foolhardy"
perhaps or misguided "zealots", and thus pointed out that their mistakes
lied in the fact that they'd gone too-far, as we'd have expected. But he
didn't. Instead, he condemned them for their non-originality. Thus Rambam
seems to be saying (and rather slyly so) that not only is it important for
us to be levelheaded and balanced in our observance -- we also need to be
as true to ourselves as the Torah would have us be.
(But it's important to underscore the fact that it would be absurd to
excuse ourselves from one mitzvah or another by claiming that we're just
not "wired" for it. For G-d's immortal Torah can be legitimately tailored
to fit all sizes, as long as we allow it to maintain its integrity.)
In any event, Rambam goes on to offer the following overarching principle
in relation to being immoderate: "The Torah only prohibited what it
prohibited and commanded what it commanded for one reason: that we be
trained to avoid extremes".
He then explains that all the restrictions that the Torah places on us in
relation to what we can enjoy in this world were set up "in order to draw
us far away from indulgence (which is an extreme) and to have us go beyond
the mean, toward asceticism (which is the other extreme), in order to
foster temperance (which is the ideal)". That is, to only lean toward an
extreme so as to arrive at a mean.
And he offers other examples. The Torah charges us to be charitable in
various forms, as many know. In fact, when it touches upon being generous
in the context of agricultural laws the Torah seems to be quiet demanding.
It asks us to tithe our crop, to leave behind certain produce that had
fallen or been forgotten so the poor could gather them up themselves, and
the like. Rambam himself notes that all this "comes very close to
(demanding) extravagance" on our part -- to almost asking us to give away
the farm, as the expression goes. But as he explains, all these demands
are only "meant to draw us far away from stinginess (an extreme) and
toward extravagance (the other extreme), in order to foster generosity
He then offers yet other illustrations of his point. "For example," he
says, "the Torah forbad vengeance and avenging a murder with the
declarations, 'Do not take revenge or bear a grudge' (Leviticus
19:18), 'If you see the donkey of someone who hates you lying beneath its
burden, refrain yourself from leaving it up to him -- help him lift it'
(Exodus 23:5)" and more. And why? "All in order to temper anger", Rambam
"It’s likewise written, 'Do not watch your brother’s ox or sheep go astray
and hide yourself from them; return them to your brother' (Deuteronomy
22:1), in order to discourage stinginess; and 'Rise up before the aged and
honor the old' (Leviticus 19:32), 'Honor your father and mother' (Exodus
20:12) ..., to discourage audacity and encourage shame". But the Torah
doesn't stop there. As Rambam underscores, "it then steers you away from
the other extreme, bashfulness, by saying 'Do not hate your brother in
your heart; but surely reproach your neighbor' (Leviticus 19:17)" and the
like, all in order "to ... discourage you from bashfulness and keep you on
the more balanced path".
"So when some utter fool comes along and wants to expand upon that by
disallowing (himself) even more" Rambam declares, "he’s actually doing
wrong, ... has gone to an extreme, and has utterly forsaken balance".
And he sums up by providing us with a maxim from the Talmud that
commiserates with his sentiments. For as one of our sages put it when he
derided people who were imposing unnecessary and unsanctioned hardships
upon themselves, “Has the Torah not already forbidden enough that you have
to forbid yet other things?" (JT Nedarim 9:1).
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman and Torah.org