Chapter Four (Part 6)
There's long been a dispute as to which matters more when it comes to
character: is it our "nature" or the way we were "nurtured" that makes us
who we are? Rambam seems to contend (at this point, at least) that it's
the latter. For as he put it, "no one is born with an inherently virtuous
or flawed character"; indeed, "we’re clearly acclimated from childhood
onward to behave the way our family and friends do". He'll expand upon
this in the final chapter.
Among many others, there are two things to be underscored with this in
mind for our purposes. First, that no one's perfect -- either perfectly
good or perfectly bad, for that matter (a lesson most of us still have to
take to heart). For we're each a complex and rich, alternately wretched
and exquisite brew of this and that. And second, that we'd each do well to
choose the sort of environment that would encourage us to be the best we
can be. But since Rambam's subject at hand here is the importance of not
being extreme, as we know, let's explore how he ties that in with the
He contends that given the fact that a lot goes into who we are, and that
much goes on despite us or behind the scenes, it follows that we need to
be on top of what might make us lean toward one extreme or another. And he
suggests that it's likewise important for us to be sure to treat our
Spirit (i.e., our personality) when it goes "off-kilter". How? Much the
way we'd treat our bodies when they're somehow out of balance.
"For when the body goes off kilter, we first determine the direction it’s
heading in," he says, that is, we try to get a sense as to just what's
wrong with it; then we "deliberately reverse its course until it returns
to equilibrium". So if, for example, we found that we were eating too much
salty food and that our blood pressure was rising as a consequence, we'd
need to do without extra salt.
But since we wouldn't do too well without salt altogether, we'd need to
strive for a happy medium. As such, in Rambam's words, we should
then "stop reversing its course", that is, we should *stop* cutting down
on salt once our blood pressure is stabilized, and then "do whatever will
keep it in balance" -- that's to say, that we'd then be wise to cut down
on salt from then on but not eliminate it.
His point is that the same holds true when it comes to character
"Suppose, for example," he warns us, "we were to encounter someone who’s
disposed toward allowing himself very little" -- who's too austere. Now,
since this is such a "*serious* personal flaw", as he notes, "we wouldn’t
order him to start being (merely) *generous*" and easygoing toward
himself, since "that would be like treating someone overcome by heat with
something lukewarm, which simply wouldn’t work". We'd need to have him
plunge right into cold water.
So we'd first "have him practice being *extravagant*" or somewhat self-
indulgent, "again and again ... until he’d have expunged his disposition"
for austerity, and until "he'd become well-nigh extravagant". In other
words, we'd have him *reverse course* from the start, and "tell him to be
generous" or more easygoing with himself (but certainly not indulgent).
The rule is that we'd treat a serious personal flaw by having the person
suffering from it *go to the opposite extreme* right then and there for a
time, then we'd guide him slowly back toward the ideal middle-ground.
Along other lines, though, Rambam suggests that if "we were to encounter
someone who's extravagant" -- which isn't quite as serious a personal flaw
as austerity, as we depicted above -- "we’d have to enjoin him to act
*stingily* again and again" to set him on course. But then Rambam makes a
very telling point.
"But we wouldn’t have him act stingily as often as we’d have the other
person act extravagantly." Why? What's the diference between the two
cases? We'll soon see.
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman and Torah.org