From time to time, I help a friend lead a Mussar worksop. A couple weeks ago we discussed the Middah, personality trait, of the Shevil HaZahav, The Golden Path of Moderation.
The following are some thoughts I presented at that meeting.
Mussar Midot and Mitzvot
Shevil HaZahav (The Golden Path, Moderation)
The laws of Kashrut
The laws of Money
The laws of Sexual Relations
Rather than exploring single mitzvot this month, let’s examine some of the lessons that underlie our relationships with food and money and sex. All three of these are major focuses in our daily lives and are too-easily abused and can become unhealthy obsessions. But, when in balance, they’re each necessary for life.
There are many reasons behind the laws of Kashrut. For example, do you know that one who doesn’t study Torah (code for those who don’t involve themselves in spiritual and altruistic behavior) is forbidden to eat meat? A deep level of understanding the food restrictions of Kashrut is that they describe the limits of what foods we, with Jewish neshamot (souls), have the spiritual energy and potential to release and elevate. The only reason we’re granted the privilege to eat the flesh of animals, and only certain animals are accessible to us, is that by our engaging in spiritual pursuits unavailable to the animal we enable it to participate in these same higher activities. If we’re not doing anything more significant with our lives than merely grazing, we have no right to take that animal’s life. But our power, no matter how spiritual and holy we might become, is still limited and we can’t access the true energy of most animals. (It’s merely apologetics and has nothing to do with Jewish tradition to try to explain kashrut through hygiene, etc.).
But, almost as a side-benefit, another important product of observing the laws of Kashrut, especially when raising our children, is to implant the very important concept of “no” into our consciousnesses. While we are commanded to “eat, be satisfied and to then bless”, we’re simultaneously told that merely satisfying our desires is, in itself, no justification. We can desire and enjoy, but only within limits. On top of that, the many laws of preparing meat or the required processes of hand-washing, blessing, eating and then blessing again when sitting to a full meal (or eating bread), along with other perhaps intangible benefits, trains us to moderate our desire for instant gratification.
Money has been problematic throughout much of human history. In developed societies we can’t live without it, but the pursuit of money to the exclusion of everything else makes it impossible to live at all. Jewish tradition teaches us that, perhaps, the main function of money, after enabling a sophisticated economy which can develop beyond subsistence farming, is to teach us generosity. Every Jew, from the richest to the poorest, is commanded to give at least 10% to those less fortunate. Even one whose only income is from charity must pass ten percent of that down the line. On the other hand, we’re also prohibited from giving away (in most cases) more than 20%! We help no one if we impoverish ourselves and then must become a burden to others.
Money is important, but an overemphasis on it too easily leads to greed. While our tradition accepts that not everyone will have exact financial parity, we also strive for an economy where everyone is able to thrive. Without money, a way to store value, to temporarily transform the value of our services to others until we can “purchase” the services from others, we would still live in a very primitive way. A good argument has been made that the very word, “coin”, is derived from the Hebrew word, חן, Chen, which means grace.
But, as with food, our laws dealing with money, both in terms of charity and also our laws concerning business (which mainly aim to create a fair and honest playing field), also are designed to help us grow as individuals, once again leading us to the middle path of moderation.
There is no human drive more compelling than sex, following the same pattern; it most powerfully illustrates and motivates our twin drives of the Yetzer Tov and the Yetzer HaRa, the drive to form/create good or evil. It’s the mode through which we express our deepest love and through which we bring forth the next generation, upon whom we lavish even more love. And it also can be our most exploitative, demeaning and selfish activity. Halacha not only limits our choice of sexual partners (laws of incest), it also limits the times we can engage in sex (family purity).
Our sages were far from prudish. We’re not only told when to refrain from sex (during menstruation), but also when to engage (especially Shabbat). We’re commanded, not merely allowed, to have children. Judaism does not support monasticism.
These laws, as do the laws of kashrut and money, continually condition us to a life of moderation. Enjoying, but not being controlled by, pleasure. Generosity for the sake of others and not out of narcissism. Loving openly and not to control or degrade. Ultimately, all these have the potential of bringing us closer to the goal of imitating God, creating for the sake of others.
Perhaps, though, the simplest expression of moderation is Hillel’s questions (Avot, 1:14), “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I?”.