The Psychological Model of Orechos Tzaddiqim

(First paragraph edited on July 16 in response to R’ Seth Kadish’s comments. -mi)The following is culled from the introduction to Orchos Tzaddiqim. Orchos Tzaddiqim, was written anonymously some time between 1306 and 1400 CE. It was written in Hebrew, but first printed in Yiddish. The earliest copies still existing are Hebrew, with great disparity in the versions of the text. The original title was “Seifer haMiddos”. The edition I’m using is a critical reconstruction by Rabbi Gavriel Zaloshinsky, who based his Hebrew on printed manuscripts; in some places where he could not determine an authotiative text, he used the language employed by earlier works upon which the author built.Orechos Tzaddiqim (OTz) starts the process speaking of our senses. Our heart follows our senses. We wear tzitzis so that we will not “wander after our hearts and after our eyes, which we are wont to stray after.” “The eye sees, and the heart wants.” Therefore, we must use our senses wisely.What does it mean to use our senses wisely? Don’t we simply see what’s out there — what’s the pro-active element. I could think of two possibilities, both true. First, and most simply, we select our environments. If some temptation poses a threat that we are not ready to handle, we can simply avoid it. Second, there is a huge step between sensation and perception. To a large extent, we choose what we see. What we carry with us and shapes us is not merely the raw physical sensation, but the order and context we impose on them.

(An interesting qabbalah would be to see if you can find each day a decision that you felt was compelled by what you experienced, and see how much of that was experience rather than the interpretation of the experience.)

Dei’os are created in five different ways. (1) Some are innate to us, there since birth — until we elect to change them. (2) Others may not be innate, but the propensity to get them is. A person could not be born vain, but born with everything in place for vanity to come easily to them. (3) Some are picked up from our peers. (4) We can also reason our way into accepting a dei’ah as proper. And, as a variation of the last, (5) some are learned from books, seem to make sense, and accepted.

The final four, the acquiring of new middos comes from our senses. Our interactions with our peers. How we perceive the ideas of others, and the ideas from which we reach our conclusions.

Dei’os, though, are not a complete description. There is not only the question of which attributes to have, but also in which proportions to have them. Interestingly, at this point, R’ Zaloshinsky’s Hebrew shifts from speaking of dei’os to middos. The word “middah” literally means measure. OTz consistently gives examples of measuring a dei’ah in two different directions: frequency and intensity. Someone can be egotistical because they frequently lord over others. Someone else may not be haughty more often than most, but when he does, he’s overwhelming about it.

A healthy person is like a stew. To make a good stew you need to put in a lot of meat, a little salt, and various amounts of other ingredients.

To know how much of each ingredient requires chokhmah, wisdom, and yir’as Shamayim — the awareness of the greatness and significance of the One in heaven, and therefore of our mission. Our middos are like pearls, and yir’as Shamayim, the strand which holds them together. Trying to proceed without yir’ah is like trying to go into banking without knowing which coin is worth more, which less, and which the king decommissioned altogether. One may be able to change one’s middos, but one can’t identify which ones need changing. Keeping the fact that we were created for a particular goal and to be a particular kind of person in mind gives us a scale by which we can assess various middos and their value to the whole.

It’s interesting to contrast this with the Rambam’s notion in Hilchos Dei’os of the shevil hazahav (the Golden Mean). The Rambam describes dei’os as the ends of a spectrum, and the Chakhom (which seems to be only one of two ideals that he draws for us) chooses the middle between them. In OTz, each middah is described as having more than one dimension, therefore there is no one middle to seek. In addition, one isn’t recommended to seek the middle in all things — some middos are the “salt”, others the “meat”. Anger has its place, but since that place is so much smaller than patience and compassion, it can be labeled in general a middah ra’ah, a bad trait. Back to the OTz’s introduction…

The next element one needs is tevunah, the ability to apply that wisdom. The chokham without tevunah is like a paraplegic; he might be able to see his goal, but isn’t equipped to reach it.

So the progression to picking up a healthy middah is: proper use of the senses to develop a dei’ah, and chokhmah and yir’as Shamayim to know the right measure for that dei’ah, and then the sevunah to be able to shape the de’iah to the desired middah.

Last is the role of hergeil, habit. Someone can be ensnared by a habit to the point where they can’t change a middah. There are times when this is constructive; we can use hergeil to build and cement appropriate middos. At times it’s destructive, so that even the chokham can’t reach his goal.

Animals are born with instincts. They therefore are born more able than we are, and stand and walk at much younger ages (in some animals, right after birth), eat on their own far younger, etc… People are born as blank slates. This means we’re born weaker. However, it also means we have the ability to write upon that slate our own personalities.

It is like a silver platter. New, it’s all shiny. Bury it for a while and dig it up, and it will require repeated polishing. Once we start setting who we are, it’s far harder to change — the habit both blinds the chokham from the dangers and poses a bigger problem for tevunah to surmount.

Hergeil is not a bad thing. Quite the reverse, it’s our ability to “write on the slate” that makes us independent and individual beings.

And your thoughts...?