The Way of God

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT VAYERA

SICHA OF HARAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN SHLIT"A

 

The Way of God

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 

For I know him, that he will command his children and his household to follow his example, that they will preserve the way of God, to perform righteousness and judgment. (Bereishit 18:19)

 

            The Torah tells us that Avraham educated his household to observe and maintain the "way of God," but there is no elaboration as to what exactly this path entails.  What was it that Avraham commanded his children and household to do?

 

The simplest way of understanding this expression is to interpret "the way of God" as the attempt to imitate God and to behave in the way that He appears to us to behave, as our Sages teach in several places:

 

Just as the Almighty is called "merciful" and "compassionate," so should you be merciful and compassionate, and be selflessly giving to all.  Just as the Holy One is called "saintly"… so should you be saintly.  Just as the Holy One is called "righteous"… so should you be righteous. (Sifri, Eikev 49)

 

Just as He clothes the naked… so should you clothe the naked.  The Holy One visited the sick… likewise you should visit the sick.  The Holy One comforted mourners… so should you comfort mourners.  The Holy One buried the dead… so should you bury the dead. (Sota 14a)

 

            The Rambam, in his Hilkhot De'ot, takes a slightly different approach.  The word "de'ot" in the works of Rambam refers not to one's views but rather to his character traits.  The Rambam introduces this section of laws with the observation that people have different sorts of character: some are quickly roused to anger, while others become angry only on very rare occasions; some people are haughty, whereas others are extremely humble and self-effacing; etc.  Rambam asserts that neither extreme of any trait is desirable; the proper path for a person to follow is the "golden mean":

 

The proper path is a moderate degree of each trait that a person has.  This degree is equidistant from both extremes, tending neither to the one nor to the other. (Hilkhot De'ot 1:4)

 

            Further on, Rambam writes that a person who adopts this path is in fact following the way of God:

 

We are commanded to follow these moderate ways; they are the ways that are good and straight, as it is written, "You shall walk in His ways." Thus the Sages explain this command: "Just as He is called 'merciful,' so shall you be merciful; just as He is called 'compassionate,' so shall you be compassionate; just as He is called 'holy,' so shall you be holy…." In light of this, the prophets referred to God with all of those titles: "long suffering and showing great kindness," "righteous and straight," "perfect," "valiant," "mighty," etc – to tell us that these are good and straight paths, and a person must accustom himself to them and thus to resemble God, as far as he is able. (ibid. 1:5-6)

 

            Rambam concludes by saying that this way is the "way of God" referred to in our parasha:

 

And since the Creator is known by these titles, and these are the median path which we must follow, this path is called "the path of God," and this is what Avraham taught his children, as it is written: "For I know him, that he will command [his children and his household to follow his example, that they will preserve the way of God]…." And one who follows this path brings goodness and blessing to himself, as it is written: "For God to bring upon Avraham what He had said concerning him." (ibid. 1:7)

 

            The Rambam, then, claims to know what the Torah means when it speaks of "the way of God" which Avraham sought to bequeath to his descendants: it refers to the well-known golden mean, on which Rambam elaborates in several places.

 

This view is quite puzzling: how does Rambam know that this is what the Torah means? Perhaps the Torah refers to the opposite view, according to which a person should exercise every trait in the most extreme fashion possible: to be the most humble, the most generous, the most merciful, etc.! Does Rambam's own subjective belief that moderation in every sphere is the proper path justify his projection of this ideal onto the expression "the way of God," and hence his corresponding interpretation of Avraham's educational policy?

 

Of course, we know that this cannot be the case; our assumption is that Rambam draws his interpretation from the verses themselves.  The same verse goes on to teach that Avraham taught his descendants "to perform righteousness and judgment (tzekaka u-mishpat)." In his Moreh Nevukhim (III:53), Rambam explains these concepts, along with a third concept.  "Chessed" (kindness), to his view, is "going beyond," doing more than is required of one – such as doing more for another person than he needs to.  "Tzedek" (righteousness), on the other hand, means "granting to everyone to whom something is due, that which is due to him, and giving to every being what it deserves." "Mishpat" (justice) is "applying judgment as is proper in each case, whether conferring a benefit or punishment."

 

Rambam goes on to explain that when a person gives charity to a poor person, this is not "chessed" but rather "tzedek" – because through his action he is giving his own soul its due.  A person's soul strives for perfection and for positive traits.  When the person behaves in this way, he is performing "tzedek" (righteousness) towards his own soul.  "Chessed" (kindness) is only where there is a complete favor, exceeding that which the soul requires.

 

In light of this explanation by Rambam, we can now understand what brings him to understand "the way of God" as he does.  Since the verse goes on to say, "to perform righteousness and justice," rather than "to perform kindness," Rambam concludes that the text is not talking here about an educational policy that calls upon a person to maintain every trait in the most excessive and extreme fashion.  That would be "chessed," which indicates excess.  Rather, the verse discusses an approach that teaches that every trait should be maintained in moderation, such that the person will not stray from the middle path.

 

It should be added that the verse suggests that in order to arrive at performing righteousness and justice, a person must first lay the foundations of a lifestyle that represents "the way of God." Someone whose actions are motivated by momentary considerations may do some good here and there, but this will not be a structured, consistent process, and there is no way of him passing it on to future generations.  Only a person who builds himself a structured way of life in which he controls his personality traits and maintains each in a measured, deliberate fashion, is able to perform "righteousness and justice" and also to bequeath his path to his children and household.

 

This path that Rambam sets forth as Avraham's example seems to lack appeal.  We generally aspire to great deveikut and enthusiasm in our service of God.  Along comes Rambam and tells us that we should serve God in a moderate, measured manner, and that we should not deviate from a situation of balance between our various tendencies and inclinations.  Does Rambam's view not lead to a grey, lifeless form of Divine service? Is a person not in danger of lapsing into mediocrity and losing his desire to elevate and uplift himself?

 

Moreover, we seem to have a problem reconciling Rambam's approach here with his very own advice in the Laws of Repentance:

 

What is the proper way to love God? It is that he should love God with a very, exceedingly great and strong love, such that his soul is bound up with love of God and he thinks about Him constantly, like someone who is love-sick and whose thoughts never stray from his love for a woman and he thinks about her constantly – while he rests, when he gets up, and while he is eating and drinking.  The love of God should be even greater than this in the hearts of those who love Him; they should think about Him constantly, as we are commanded: "With all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." And thus Shelomo teaches by means of his parable – "for I am love-sick;" all of Shir Ha-shirim is a parable for this very idea. (Hilkhot Teshuva 10:3)

 

            Here the Rambam is not talking about a measured, moderate love; he is describing the greatest and most overpowering love that a person can feel.  Rambam expects a person to be literally "love-sick" in relation to God.  Is this not a clear contradiction of what he teaches in his Hilkhot De'ot – i.e., that a person should remove himself from any extreme behavior or emotion and maintain every trait and feeling on a moderate, measured level?

 

The answer is that there is certainly some value in a person achieving a sense of religious fervor, of cleaving to God, but for this purpose he must build himself a lifestyle of "righteousness and justice." A person who strives to exist in a constant state of religious ecstasy, spending his life dancing in the streets with intense fervor, may well experience some lofty and uplifting moments in his Divine service, but he is also likely to end up in less desirable states.  A person who does not exercise any control over his spiritual level may reach levels that are not suitable for him – and fall into sin.

 

In order to achieve lofty levels of religious upliftment, a person must first establish an orderly, structured way of life in which he controls his personality traits and characteristics.  When a person lives like this, he is able – at the appropriate time and place – elevate himself and achieve a very high level of loving God and cleaving to Him.  A life of moderation and control allows one to achieve – in a controlled manner – some special moments of extreme intensity.

 

Thus, Rambam is describing two levels of serving God that exist in parallel.  A person dare not live only the "routine," as described in Hilkhot De'ot, without ever aspiring to attain the uplifting experience of Hilkhot Teshuva.  However, it is equally destructive for him to try to live in the ecstasy of Hilkhot Teshuva without first creating an orderly, structured basis of a lifestyle in accordance with Hilkhot De'ot.  Only a person who has established for himself the foundations of "righteousness and justice" can strive for the boundless love of God described in Shir Ha-shirim, after which he returns unharmed to his routine lifestyle.  Only a person whose path in serving God is a solid, consistent one, rather than a collection of rapturous religious moments, can bequeath his path "to his children and his household after him."