Chapter Four (Part 7)
After having just filled us in on the protocol to follow to rectify our character, Rambam then adds another dimension on to what he terms his "secret of healing". What that means to imply is that this most effective way to rectify our personalities somehow or another also gives something away. What it reveals in fact is an insight into the Jewish view of spiritual health, and it feeds into our discussion about piety. After all, one of the most important themes of this work is an explanation of just what "piety" is in a Jewish context (see Rambam's Introduction). But let's backtrack a bit to explain.
Recall that this chapter started off with the notion that a healthy Spirit
is one that's "predisposed to doing good" deeds while an ill Spirit
is "predisposed to doing bad" ones. And we learned that Rambam
defines "good" deeds as ones that "lie midway between two extremes", and
he thus instructs us to always strive for equibalance.
And he then advises us to have someone with an extreme disposition go to
the opposite extreme again and again for a while, then have him or her
move slowly backward to middle-ground. But this is where Rambam's
healing "secret" is about to be revealed, and it touches on this conundrum
we'd raised before.
Why did Rambam say that if we encountered someone who's "extravagant",
that we’d have to enjoin him to act "stingily" in order to bring him to
the more balanced state of being "generous" ... and that we'd have to have
him do that * more often* than we'd have to encourage a stingy person to
act extravagantly to eventually be wholesomely generous?
It comes to this. As we saw above, when Rambam terms someone "stingy" he
means that he's austere (i.e., he's stingy with his *own* needs); when he
terms someone "extravagant" he means that he's self-indulgent to a degree;
and when he speaks of someone being "generous" Rambam means that that
person's *somewhat* easygoing toward oneself.
Thus, Rambam is making a particular point. Being austere and self-denying
is not only not balanced -- it's not Jewish. Our faith deems that too
extreme. We Jews -- including the most pious among us -- are encouraged to
have families; to engage in society; and to enjoy good, healthy (kosher)
food and the like while being deeply religious. For Jewish spiritual
excellence comes down to doing all that in a healthy, balanced way.
So, the "secret" comes to this: if we encounter someone who's out-and-out
self-indulgent, then we’d want to encourage him to act somewhat austerely
for a while, as we said above, because self-indulgence isn't the Jewish
way. But we'd have to encourage him to go to that other extreme more often
than we'd have to tell the austere person to be self-indulgent for two
reasons. First, simply because even though austerity comes naturally to
people who want to be pious, it's still easy enough for people in general
to ease-off a bit; and second, because our people know intuitively that
austerity isn't what's asked of us.
(Along the same lines, Rambam also adds that we’d do well to ask a
cowardly person to practice being out-and-out *daring* for a longer time
than we’d ask "a daring person to practice cowardice", since it's easier
and more intuitive going from daring to cowardice -- or let's say, to
healthy caution -- than it is to go from cowardice to daring.)
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman and Torah.org