Being a Mensch

(Must be read together with post of November 3)

A concept closely related to responsibility is the commandment to “walk in God’s ways” – to constantly be growing in our capacity to emulate God through acting in ways that reflect divine qualities. What does it mean to “go in the ways of God”?

The great medieval compiler of Jewish law through his great work Mishneh Torah, Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon or Rambam as many people call him), interprets the obligation to be God-like as being “in the middle quality” within yourself and we develop in this way by walking in the world on the “middle path.”

He refers to this path as the derech hayashar [upright or straight path].

From my experience the whole world seems to misunderstand the Rambam.

Too often I have heard people say that the Rambam is talking about “moderation,” the “Golden Mean” or “balance.” They think of the Rambam’s middle path the way they think of the children’s story The Three Bears. The bed is not too hard and not too soft but just right. The porridge is not too hot and not too cold but just right.

Listen carefully to his words and I think you will hear something very different.

Rambam starts off by saying that people have a wide range of qualities. Some people get angered easily and others hardly at all, and so forth. He explains that both extremes in every quality are not a good path to be in.

He goes on to say that if you find yourself going in one extreme path or another you should go in the straight path. The straight path is the “beinonit [middle] quality” in every human quality, “equidistant from the two extremes.” Estimate where you are on the scale, he instructs us, and direct yourself to the emtza’it [middle] path.

What are the extremes? Don’t be easily angered and fly into a rage at the slightest provocation and don’t be deadened in your emotions. Have the middle quality. Only get angry over something serious that’s worth getting angry about and even then use your anger to prevent this thing from happening again. Don’t throw away your money and don’t be so stingy that you won’t help someone in need. Spend on your needs and help others. Don’t be obnoxious and don’t be glum and miserable. Be a pleasant person.

He brings still more examples in his book Shmoneh Perakim (the introduction to his commentary on Avot – the classic Mishnaic ethical work). “Precaution is in the middle between overactive appetite and absence of appetite. Generosity is in the middle between stinginess and squandering. Courage is in the middle between recklessness and cowardice. Dignity is in the middle between vanity and self- degradation. Composure is in the middle between infuriation and lethargy. Humility is in the middle between arrogance and feeling like a nothing. A feeling of sufficiency with what one has is in the middle between over-ambition for money and indifference. Being kind-hearted is in the middle between not wanting to help even when it doesn’t hurt you and rushing in to help even when it’s extremely hurtful to you. Patience is in the middle between hyper-irritation and self-victimization. Modesty is in the middle between brazenness and timidity…”

To pick up from where we left off in the first source, Mishneh Torah, the Rambam says that the early Torah scholars expressed the meaning of this commandment to be in the middle path by saying: Just as God is called gracious so you should be gracious. Just as God is called compassionate so you should be compassionate. Just as God is called holy so you should be holy.

Rambam explains that this middle path is the good path, the upright path, and that’s why it’s the path of God, and I would add the path towards human excellence.

What makes this a path of human excellence is not that it’s about moderation, about not being too much or too little of this or that, to which people then add that Rambam is promoting a certain personality goal of being subdued and lacking in passion.

Being reckless is bad, period. Being lethargic is bad. Being all of the extremes is bad not because it’s a little too much spice to a dish or color to your life and after all what is wrong if someone wants a little more spice here and there? Are we all supposed to be dull and the same?

No! We’re not supposed to be dull or the same. But that’s not what the Rambam means. In Shmoneh Perakim the Rambam elaborates and says that the qualities that are bad are superfluities and detractions. (tosefet and chisaron) The middle qualities are situated in a place that is in between the two bad qualities.

The excess and detraction the Rambam is talking about is the kind of adding or detracting that distorts the original.

It is the same word for adding that is used to refer to the ban against adding to or detracting from the commandments. (Devarim 4:2) and it is the same word used to refer to adding to or detracting from nature (Psalms – no time right now to find the exact source)

We’re not supposed to add or detract from the commandments in a way that distorts the commandment itself. We can add by beautifying it but not changing its essential character.

Similarly by adding to kindness in a way that hurts yourself, it is not “more” kindness. It is not kindness at all.

The path of God is “in the middle” not in the sense that it’s on the same physical plane as the two extremes, except for being in the middle. It’s on the spiritual plane, a higher dimension – like an apex that is straight because it cuts through the physical plane and brings together the two extremes in one unity.

If I have to determine in a given situation what kindness is, I will have to look from a perspective from above to see the extreme that would mean hurting myself and the other extreme that would mean not helping the other even when I’m not hurting myself. And from that place I will approximate closer and closer to the meaning of true human excellence.

Rambam calls the middle path the straight path. Where else do we find the word yashar [straight]? “The L-rd made man upright/straight and they have sought out many calculations.” (Kohelet 7:29)

The basic goodness in a person is the divine spark within you. The upright path has its own characteristics. It’s not defined by what it’s missing or by being “in between.”

Thus, there is no lack of playfulness, zest for life, curiosity or passionate self-expression in it. It’s not about being very careful to tone down your dance step, looking drab or being a boring person. It’s not about toning down your enthusiasm or beefing up your energy level.

By expressing divine qualities in the world we thereby bring God into the world by expressing Divine qualities in the world.

Responsibility means going in your path and doing what you need to do next. What’s wrong you have to right. This is your obligation. This is who you are. How can you come closer to who you are?

Imitating God means being a mensch, following God’s ways and being close to God. What the Rambam has explained is how we can approach an expression of our God-liness, called the upright path because it’s the path of rising to full human stature

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