A long while ago I wrote (in “A use for every middah“):
The Rambam (Hilkhos Dei’os 1:4) describes the ideal balance of middos as being the shevil hazahav, the golden mean. He writes (tr. Immanuel O’Levy), “The way of the upright is [to adopt] the intermediate characteristic of each and every temperament that people have. This is the characteristic that is equidistant from the two extremes of the temperament of which it is a characteristic, and is not closer to either of the extremes.” Too much anger is cruel to others, too little, and one lacks the motivation to correct wrongs.
There are two ways to view being in the middle. The first is a more naive and natural reading of the Rambam, in that neither middah exceeds the middle mark, on some hypothetical scale, the person is in the middle. However, contradictory middos are not mutually exclusive. Someone could feel ambivalence, and be simultaneously happy and sad. There therefore isn’t really a single scale with a person at some point between the extremes. You need to specify the amount of each extreme, e.g. of taking enjoyment and asceticism, individually.
The shevil hazahav is therefore having equal quantities of each, and knowing which to use when. Finding tif’eres, harmony. A skilled carpenter is one who has mastered the use of both hammer and screwdriver, and knows which joins are best made with nails, and which with screws.
I believe this is the Rambam’s intent later in the pereq when he says:
1:6 We are commanded to go in these middle ways, the good and upright ways, as it is written, “And walk in His ways, et cetera”. As an explanation of this commandment, we have learnt that just as God shows mercy so also should we show mercy, that just as God is merciful so also should we be merciful, and that just as God is holy so also should we be holy. It was with this in mind that the first Prophets called the Almighty with the Attributes of: long-suffering, magnanimous, righteous, upright, faultless, mighty, strong, et cetera, in order to make it known that these are good and upright ways, and that one is obligated to accustom oneself to them, and to make one’s ways as similar to them as possible.
1:7 How should one regulate oneself with these temperaments so that one is directed by them? One should do, change one and change one’s actions which one does according to the intermediate temperaments and always go back over them, until such actions are easy for one to do and will not be troublesome for one, and until such temperaments are fixed in one’s soul. This way is known as the way of the Lord, for the reasons that the Creator has been called by them and that they are the intermediate characteristics which we are obligated to adopt. This is what Abraham taught his sons, as it is written, “For I know him, that he will command his children, et cetera”. One who goes in this way will bring upon himself good and blessings, as it is written, “…that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He has spoken of him” .
In the closing of the chapter, the Rambam defines the “middle way” as incorporating all the attributes with which Hashem is described. Which fits better the interpretation I suggested in 2005 than a more literal reading of the word “middle”.
This ambivalence was the topic of my earlier essay (“Compassion for Our Enemies“) about half-Hallel on the last days of Pesach. We celebrate the end of evil while also mourning the fact that “maasei Yadai tov’im beyam – the work of My ‘Hands’ are drowning in the sea” to accomplish that. Had the same goal been reached through the Mitzriyim repenting, the joy would have been complete. Instead, ambivalence.
A decade ago I suggested (“Of Arks and Rainbows“) that this ambivalence is a general feature of what we call a “yeshu’ah“. Why Noach wasn’t to look beyond the walls of the ark, and why even today we see a rainbow in mixed terms — a warning that we’re “tempting” G-d to flood the world again (had He not foresworn doing do) and as a reminder of His covenant with Noah. As well as why Lot and his family were not permitted to look back at the destruction of Sodom as they fled the city. When one didn’t fully merit being saved, the joy must be muted lest it overwhelm the sorrow. Balance must be kept between conflicting emotions.
I think this notion of mixed emotions and motivations enters halakhah as well.
The clearest case is when someone loses a family member thereby inheriting wealth. The beraisa (quoted on Berakhos 59a) rules that someone who lost a father must make two blessings:Dayan haEmes on the loss, and on the inheritance either Shehechiyanu (if one is an only child, and thus it is a private occasion) or Tov uMeitiv (if brothers inherit and thus the inheritance aspect is shared good news). Even in the face of losing a parent, one still has room for the conflicting emotion of the joy of sudden wealth.
But I think it also comes up in more subtle ways. The mishnah (Kesuvos 7:10) lists men who kofin osan, we compel them, to divorce their wives. The gemara (50a) explains, borrowing an idea from qorbanos:
… “יקריב אותו” – מלמד שכופין אותו, יכול בעל כרחו? תלמוד לומר: “לרצונו”, הא כיצד? כופין אותו עד שיאמר רוצה אני; ואמאי? הא בלביה לא ניחא ליה! אלא לאו משום דאמרינן דברים שבלב אינן דברים. ודילמא שאני התם, דאנן סהדי דניחא ליה בכפרה! אלא מסיפא: וכן אתה מוצא בגיטי נשים ושחרורי עבדים, כופין אותו עד שיאמר רוצה אני; ואמאי? הא בלביה לא ניחא ליה! אלא לאו משום דאמרינן דברים שבלב אינן דברים.
… “He shall offer it” — teaching that we compel him [to bring the qorban]. Could it be against his will? We learn from what it says “according to his will.” How is this? We compel him until he says “I want.” Why? In his heart it is not desirable for him! Rather, because we say “matters that are within the heart are not [legally significant] matters.”
Maybe it’s different over there [by offerings, than here by divorce] since we can presume that atonement is good for him. Only from the end:
And similarly you divorce through a write of divorce, or freeing slaves, you compel him until he says “I want.” Why? In his heart it is not desirable for him! Rather, because we say “matters that are within the heart are not [legally significant] matters.”
The Rambam (Geirushin 2:20) elaborates as to how such compulsion is still “according to his will”, despite what seems to be a self-evident paradox:
… ולמה לא בטל גט זה שהרי הוא אנוס בין ביד גוים בין ביד ישראל, שאין אומרין אנוס אלא למי שנלחץ ונדחק לעשות דבר שאינו מחוייב מן התורה לעשותו כגון מי שהוכה עד שמכר או נתן אבל מי שתקפו יצרו הרע לבטל מצוה או לעשות עבירה והוכה עד שעשה דבר שחייב לעשותו או עד שנתרחק מדבר שאסור לעשותו אין זה אנוס ממנו אלא הוא אנס עצמו בדעתו הרעה. לפיכך זה שאינו רוצה לגרש מאחר שהוא רוצה להיות מישראל רוצה הוא לעשות כל המצות ולהתרחק מן העבירות ויצרו הוא שתקפו וכיון שהוכה עד שתשש יצרו ואמר רוצה אני כבר גרש לרצונו….
And why isn’t the get invalidated, since it is compelled — whether by the power of non-Jews [acting at the behest of beis din] whether by that of Jews? Because we don’t say “compelled” except by someone who is pulled away and forced to do something which he is not obligated by the Torah to do. Such as someone who is beaten until he sells or gives something away. But someone whom his yeitzer hara grabs him to defy a mitzvah or to do a sin, and is hit until he does the thing he is obligated to do or is distanced from something he is prohibited to do, this is not “compelled”. Rather he compelled himself with his bad thought. Therefore, this person who doesn’t want to divorce, as a consequence of the fact that he wants to be of the Jewish community, he wants to do all the mitzvos and stay away from sins, and it is his yeitzer which grabbed him. Once he is beaten until his yeitzer subsides, and he says “I want”, he is divorcing according to his will.
The Rambam is noting that in such cases, the person actually has two conflicting desires. On the one hand, he wants to retain his wife. On the other, he wants to be a Jew, to do the right thing, and that includes the obligation to divorce her (in the situations in question). A valid divorce requires will. But I believe the Rambam is saying that it needn’t be his dominant will. As long as the desire is there, the divorce would be valid. Even if other, pettier, desires overwhelm this one.
So then why is the husband beaten? Because the requirement for desire is a legal one, which means that it can’t be unstated, left for only the person themselves to witness. Since the person isn’t acting from this will, we need some other external expression of it. The beating isn’t to enable our pretending the desire to divorce his wife is the one he is choosing to act upon. It is there to make the lesser desire physically manifest, and based upon that lesser desire the divorce is valid.
The Rambam’s explanation only makes more sense from within the presumption that the husband is subject to conflicting motivations.
One last example, the convert who has ulterior motives. Lekhat-chilah, if we could step in before the fact, we would not accept such a convert. A precondition to conversion is qabbalas ol mitzvos, accepting the yoke of mitzvos. But afterward, is the conversion valid or not? Did the convert truly accept ol mitzvos, or not? The Rambam says we wait and see, and judge from their actual observance (Issurei Bi’ah 13:14). (At the time of the conversion; someone who initially observance and later reverts to non-observance is a valid convert, a Jew who is sinning.) Having another motive — e.g. someone who wants to marry a Jew and be accepted by their family — does not rule out also having a proper one. However, it is much harder to know, for those of us who must determine her status for our own observance of halakhah.
In Slabodka it was taught that eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge made such mixtures inevitable. Not just that conflicting emotions and motivations can coexist, but that they always coexist. Thus, the tree is not that of the knowledge of good and the knowledge of evil, but of good-and-evil, be’irbuvyah — in constant mixture. Every good deed is performed with at least some small adulteration of another motivation, and (fortunately) so too every sin. I explored this thought too in an earlier blog entry (“The origins of imperfection“). Now I want to note how this concept enables our understanding of other matters.
To conclude with a story I told then:
Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, was once diagnosed with a serious illness; he needed a major medical center. He was given information about each of his choices, and asked which one he would go to. The Alter chose the hospital in St. Petersburg. Upon his return, someone from the community who had noticed that he hadn’t been around asked where he had been. The Alter replied that he had been to St. Petersburg. The man asked why. He answered, “I went to see a push-button umbrella.”
His students asked the Alter of Slabodka why he said this. After all, the decision to go to St. Petersburg was made after hearing all his options, much consideration and deliberation about which was the best hospital for his illness. Why did he say it was about an umbrella?
The Alter explained that a short while earlier, he was traveling around the region on yeshiva business and had arrived in St. Petersburg. He was amazed by this new invention he saw there, an umbrella that opens with the push of the umbrella. Laying in his hospital bed, the Alter realized that the experience colored his decision. A component of the decision was his association of the city with the latest invention and his desire to see them.