The two extremes of each quality are not the proper and worthy path for one to follow or train himself in. And if a person finds his nature inclining towards one of them or if he has already accustomed himself in one of them, he must bring himself back to the good and upright path.
The upright path is the middle path of all the qualities known to man. This is the path which is equally distant from the two extremes, not being too close to either side. Therefore the Sages instructed that a person measure (lit., estimate) his character traits, directing them in the middle path so he will be whole.
How does one do this? He should not be a person of rage who easily angers nor a corpse with no feelings. Rather, he should be in the middle: He should only anger over serious matters regarding which anger is appropriate — so that the same offense will not be repeated. Similarly, he should only desire that which his body needs and which human life is impossible without, as the verse states: ‘A righteous man eats to sate his soul’ (Proverbs 13:25). So too, he should exert himself in his occupation only sufficiently to support himself for the immediate term, as the verse states: ‘Modest amounts befit the righteous’ (Psalms 37:16). He should also not be overly miserly nor should he squander all his money. Rather, he should give charity as he can afford, and lend appropriately to people who need. He should not be overly mirthful and uproarious nor dreary and mournful. Rather, he should be quietly joyful all his days, maintaining a cheerful countenance. And likewise for all his other qualities. This generally speaking is the way of the wise. Any person whose character traits all fall in the center, midway between the extremes, is considered wise.
This week the Rambam elaborates on his first main theme — that of following the middle path in life. The Rambam provides us with a number of examples of precisely what the middle path is.
Probably the most amusing aspect of this section is that the Rambam first recommends that we follow the middle path in life, not veering to either extreme, then illustrates it with some very ascetic examples — virtually never angering, consuming only the amount of food required for human survival, working only enough to support ourselves for the short term, etc. It’s clear first of all that the middle path is not the path of the average person. This is the path of the wholly righteous. But even so, how can the Rambam honestly refer to these as “middle” paths? Clearly he is advising us to veer quite heavily towards asceticism?
I believe the simplest answer is that we have a very skewed image of what “average” behavior is. We tend to look around and take cues from our environment. Since most people strive for much more money than they need, while some are content to break even, we tend to think of the middle as only striving for somewhat more than we require.
Further, we have become ingrained with the notion that success in life is measured in financial terms. It’s almost inconceivable to us that a certain amount of income is “enough” — and at that point we need earn no more. I know from my own experiences, when I and my family picked up to move to Israel — sacrificing a decent, secure position in the high-tech sector in the process, a question I was hit with was, “Oh, do you have a good job offer waiting for you?” To many it was almost incomprehensible that I was sacrificing a good position and moving for reasons other than — and in hindsight quite detrimental to — my financial situation.
The Rambam, however, posits a much simpler definition for “average” behavior. We may either earn not enough, earn enough, or earn too much. So the middle path: earning enough. We may never anger, anger appropriately, or anger too much. So the middle is — appropriately. Sounds almost teasingly simple. The fact that human nature invariably tends toward one extreme does not alter the basic equation. The wise man follows not conventional wisdom but what he knows to be right.
The Talmud (Yoma 35b) tells us that Hillel, great sage of the Mishna, obligates all poor people to study Torah. When a poor person departs and ascends to heaven, he will be asked why he didn’t study Torah. If he responds he was too poor and too busy struggling to make ends meet, they’ll challenge him: “Were you poorer than Hillel?” The Talmud then proceeds to describe how Hillel used to earn a small amount of money daily, half he would use to support his family and half would go toward the entrance fee of the local study hall. One day he was not able to earn anything and was not allowed into the study hall. He climbed onto the roof, perching himself above the skylight to listen to the lecture. It happened to be the dead of winter — and a heavy snow began falling. The next morning the sages discovered Hillel half dead on the roof. They managed to revive him — and began to appreciate just who this pauper amongst them was.
The Talmud continues that the scholar R. Elazer ben (son of) Charsom obligates all rich people to study Torah. If a rich man, after his passing, claims in heaven that he was too busy with his business ventures to study, they’ll respond, “Were you richer than R. Elazar?” The Talmud proceeded to describe the vast holdings he controlled, yet, continues the Talmud, he studied day and night. He was quite content to leave it all in the hands of his trusted managers (apparently he was righteous in other ways too).
The Talmud writes similarly regarding Joseph. If a handsome man is brought up to heaven and claims he could not pursue a more spiritual course because his desires got the better of him, they’ll respond, “Were you better-looking than Joseph?” (A different version: “Were you more challenged than Joseph?” (See Genesis 39 — how as a teenager, alone in a foreign land, he repeatedly resisted the advances of the wife of his master Potiphar — so much so, that he is eternally known to us as “Joseph the righteous one” (ha’tzaddik).) Here too the Talmud describes just a few of Mrs. Potiphar’s seductive wiles.
My teacher. R. Yochanan Zweig posed a very simple question on this passage. What does it mean, say, that Hillel obligated the poor? What role did Hillel actually play? If what he did is within the ability of the average individual, then we should behave as he regardless of his precedent! It is within our ability, so, we would suppose, G-d expects it of us. And if he did what only a superman could, how could we be expected to follow just because he pulled it off? What bearing does his righteousness have on us regular folk?
R. Zweig answered with an important principle. Most of us really do not know what we are capable of. We take our cues from our surroundings. How much charity can we give? How much time can we devote to study and community causes? How frugally can we live? We never even really ask ourselves such questions. We simply look around: what do our neighbors do? If we do as they, then presumably we are living up to our potential: we are as good as our peers. Sadly, human beings typically do not strive to be any greater than their surroundings. In fact, they put much effort into not standing out before the neighbors. And without role models better than we, we literally cannot be any better. It is simply beyond the realm of our imagination.
This, explained R. Zweig, is the primary lesson of the greats mentioned in the Talmud above. Joseph had no role model from whom to learn. He achieved by looking within himself — certainly not at the lewd society in which in lived — and recognizing what he could be. Likewise, Hillel and R. Elazar did not just follow the crowd. They reached for their own stars. They saw what they were able to do; they were not bound by environment or societal conventions. And by so doing, we today are blessed with living examples of just how great a human being can be. G-d does expect more of us today because we have from whom to learn. We know what greatness is — and what we too are capable of achieving.
I think this message is crucial for understanding the Rambam. We must not gauge ourselves based on our surroundings. If we follow what appears the middle path today, we will lead a mediocre existence indeed. The paths the Rambam recommends here are “average” only in an ideal world. Yet these are the ones we are told to strive for. In a later chapter the Rambam will discuss the impact environment has on man and the importance of living in a proper religious environment. Yet even here we must be careful not to borrow definitions too heavily from our surroundings. The goals set before us are just as high. It is we who must raise ourselves to them.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org