Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Condensation of Ch. 4 of Rambam's "Eight Chapters"

This is part of my upcoming translation
of Rambam's "Eight Chapters", to be
published shortly by Judaica Press.

Interested in dedicating this work in
loving memory of someone or for other reasons?
Please contact me at


1. “Good” deeds lie midway between two extreme ones, “virtuous” dispositions lie midway between two extreme dispositions, and specific dispositions tend to foster specific deeds.

2.. Temperance, for example, (which is a balanced trait) would be a product of a virtuous disposition and would be good; while indulgence and asceticism (temperance’s two polar opposite extremes) would be bad. The same goes for other balanced vs. extreme traits like generosity, as opposed to stinginess and extravagance; courage, as opposed to daring and cowardice; simple happiness, as opposed to brashness and dullness; humility, as opposed to arrogance and meekness; earnestness, as opposed to boastfulness and humbleness; contentment, as opposed to indulgence and sloth; composure, as opposed to wrath and indifference; shamefacedness, as opposed to audacity and bashfulness, and the like.

3. People often mistakenly consider character extremes to be good. They might consider daring people to be brave; indifferent people to be tolerant; lazy people to be content; lethargic people to be temperate; and they might admire extravagant and boastful people. But that’s wrong, because we’re to strive for balance in our behavior. Nonetheless, it’s important to understand that virtues and flaws only affix themselves onto us when we repeat the behavior patterns associated with them again and again.

4. Since no one is born with an inherently and utterly virtuous or flawed character, it’s important to tend to your character much the way you’d tend to your body when it goes off kilter. For when the body’s indeed off kilter we reverse its course until it returns to a state of equilibrium, where we then allow it to stay. We should do that when it comes to our character as well. So if you’re self-abnegating, for example, we’d encourage you to be profligate until you’d have expunged the trait of self-abnegation, then we’d encourage you to allow yourself some amenities in the end. While if you were profligate, we’d encourage you to be somewhat self-abnegating, but we wouldn’t encourage you to go to the other extreme (profligation) quite as much in the process as we had if you’d been self-abnegating.

5. As such, since it’s easier going from profligacy to merely allowing yourself some amenities than from utter self-denial to profligacy, just as it’s easier going from asceticism to temperance than from indulgence to temperance-- we’d thus have an indulgent person behave ascetically longer than we’d have an ascetic be indulgent in the process of rectifying their personalities; we’d have a cowardly person act daringly longer than we’d have a daring person act cowardly; and we’d have a meek person be boastful longer than we’d have a boastful person act meekly.

6. The pious, however, wouldn’t always strive for equal balance. They’d tend toward one extreme or another, depending on circumstances, in order to safeguard themselves against sin. They’d be somewhat more ascetic than temperate; somewhat more daring rather than courageous; somewhat more earnest than boastful; somewhat more humble than meek, etc. Some pious individuals even fasted, awoke in the middle of the night to pray and study, avoided meat and wine, and the like, but only for the sake of their moral well-being when those around them were corrupt, and they feared being adversely affected.

7. Now, when fools who knew nothing of why they were doing that saw those pious individuals acting that way, they set out to do the same, assuming that that was how a person would draw close to God. But rather than doing good, they were actually doing harm.

8. For the Torah means for us to live a normal life: to eat, drink, and have relations as permitted, in moderation; to live in society, and to wear standard clothing. It frowns upon extremes, and encourages us to achieve intellectual and personal virtues.

9. Hence, if you’re foolish enough to believe that you should deny yourself all pleasure in order to discipline yourself, you’re wrong. For what the Torah meant for us to do was to systematically withdraw from indulgence in order to implant the traits of temperance, generosity, and shamefacedness, as well as to discourage anger and bashfulness.

10. So, always favor balanced actions over extreme ones, other than to heal yourself. And be introspective and self-aware. Be like the man who sensed he was becoming ill who then remained alert to his condition all the time, and made sure it wasn’t deteriorating, who’d avoid anything that would do him harm and favor things that would make him well. Which is to say, try to rectify your flaws, for none of us are without them.

11. In fact, even Moses wasn’t without his flaws. He became angry at one point and referred to the Jewish Nation as “rebels” when they weren’t. He thus profaned God’s name and set a bad example for everyone (since they watched his every move and listened to everything he said, in order to learn from him), and he had them draw false conclusions about God’s intentions.

12. So, always judge your own actions and strive for balance in them, and you’ll be a person of high caliber, you’ll draw close to God, satisfy His wishes, and thus serve God the best of ways.

(C) 2004 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman