Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Balancing Act

The Narrow Bridge

Rav Nachman of Braslav famously compared our journeys in this world to crossing a narrow bridge. While his analogy is very meaningful, I think that it is off in an important way. It is this simile’s mismatch that might help us solve the dilemma that it so powerfully expresses.

It is certainly true that one of the most important skills for succeeding in life is that same aptitude needed for crossing a narrow bridge – balance. This is something that no one but the rare person knows early in life. It is the nature of young people to see the world in extremes, to be passionately uncompromising. But as we grow older, we learn from experience about the grey areas of life. We discover the need to balance theory with reality, idealism with pragmatism. We learn how to compromise because we realize that otherwise nothing would get done and no one would survive.

Click here to read moreThe Torah initially refers to God in the Creation story as Elokim. However, in the second chapter of Bereishis, during the detailed story of the creation of Adam and Eve, the Torah calls God by the double name of Hashem Elokim. The Sages saw in this phenomenon a profound lesson about life. In rabbinic thought, the name Elokim refers to God’s attribute of strict, unbending justice and the name Hashem refers to God’s attribute of mercy. When God follows protocol and punishes those deserving it, He is acting with the attribute of Elokim. When He gives people second chances, He is acting with the attribute of Hashem.[1]

The lesson of divine names in Bereshit is that originally God had planned to operate with the world as Elokim, following the rules strictly. However, with the creation of people, who ultimately used their free will to sin, it became clear that justice alone would not leave room for human survival. God needed, and still needs, to balance His justice with His mercy, making challenging demands but allowing room for the correction of errors. Hence the double name Hashem Elokim. Even God has to exercise balance.

Our Inner Balancing Act

In our personalities, also, we have to learn balance. It is the rare person who is always happy or constantly melancholy. Most of us have moods. However, as we learn quickly in life, we need to control the effects of our moods rather than let them control us. Failing that challenge can lead to social disaster.

It is not just moods but also character traits that require balance. By this I mean the Aristotelian “Doctrine of the Mean” that was so important to the Rambam and is so true in life. Generosity, for example, is a crucial trait in any good person. However, when taken to one extreme it can lead to personal poverty by giving away all of your possessions and when taken to another it leads to cruelty to those who are poor and genuinely need your help. Moderation, in this aspect and in most others, is crucial.[2]

How do we reach that middle ground? The Rambam’s answer to this is one that can be generalized to all the other balancing acts we need to perform. We have to be conscious of the need to change, devise a plan, and then struggle to reach our goals. I think this last point is crucial. We have to work hard at it. We will not get there immediately, and we have to expect life to be difficult as we work to reach our state of balance.

The Strategy of Merging

If just about everything in life requires balance and we have to plan a way to get there, we are still left with the question of what methods to use to achieve our goals. One approach can be seen in the case of learning Torah, which also needs balance. The Talmud requires a person to divide his study into thirds – one third for Bible, one third for Mishnah and one third for Gemara. Early authorities debate whether the thirds must be daily and must consist of equal parts. Significantly, Ashkenazic authorities consider the study of a single text that contains all of these elements (the Talmud) to be a fulfillment of this requirement. This strategy of merging effectively reduces the complexity of the balancing act.[3]

In other areas of life also, by systematically merging the extremes we can create a balance that we can then easily embrace. For example, you can construct a diet that is not too strict which enables you to find a path in between the extremes of abstinence and indulgence. If you follow that diet carefully, you will find that you have merged the two extremes and are carefully following a middle path. We might even consider that the rules of Ma’aser Kesafim (charity tithing) are a similar attempt to create a middle ground between generosity and stinginess.[4]

A Life of Torah and Work

Pirkei Avot teaches us that it is proper to combine a life of work (derech eretz) with a life of Torah study.[5] In other words, we need to balance our waking hours, devoting some to earning a living and others to studying Torah. It remains unstated but obvious that time is also needed for personal and family upkeep. How are we supposed to split our time?

I think the resolution, if you can call it that, can be seen in three passages by the Rambam. The first is in his Misheh Torah, where he advocates a person working for three hours a day and then spending nine hours studying Torah.[6] Elsewhere, the Rambam discusses his partnership with his brother David. David would travel to faraway places like India, where he would acquire merchandise that he would bring to his brother Moshe (Rambam) to sell locally. This arrangement allowed the Rambam to comfortably remain locally and learn Torah for many hours a day.[7] This could have been a time in his life when he fulfilled the formula he wrote in Mishneh Torah, perhaps even surpassing it in terms of time spent learning Torah.

However, in a letter to R. Yosef Ibn Tibbon much later in his life, Rambam described a daily routine that was very different.[8] As a famous doctor, he spent the first half of his day tending to the royal family and the second half of his day continuing into the late hours of the night, treating patients who came to his home. This is far from the three hours a day that Rambam prescribed as the ideal.

This is hardly a case of merging the two extremes. If the Rambam had done that, he would have been a professional rabbi – either a teacher, a pulpit rabbi or both. Indeed, many today and in the past have done just that, effectively making the study and teaching of Torah their living, often at great personal sacrifice. However, for both doctrinal and practical reasons, the Rambam did not pursue that strategy. Instead, he did what most of us do – he struggled to find the proper balance based on external needs and his own abilities. Like with most people, his needs and opportunities changed over the course of his lifetime and the precise balancing point shifted over time. At times, the proper mix was mostly learning Torah and at other times the best combination was mostly working.

The Honest Struggle

But this answer is a little too pat. It gives us ample room to find the easiest position and remain satisfied with our compromise. We need to remember the Gemara’s statement that we have to look to the examples of Hillel and R. Elazar ben Chasma, who despite their respective overwhelming situations of poverty and wealth, they each still found a way to study Torah.

We need to look at our own lives, to properly evaluate our personal situations and search for a true balance without taking easy ways out. We need to use strategies like forcing ourselves to learn, and we have to constantly reevaluate our priorities and our efforts. We might think that we don’t have more time to learn but it is there waiting for us to take advantage of it. The story is told that someone once asked R. Yisrael Salanter, the famous mussar proponent, what subject to learn if he only has a short time each day – mussar or Gemara? R. Yisrael replied that he should learn mussar, because if he learns mussar he will realize that he has to find more time in the day to learn.[9] One often overlooked opportunity is the commute to work. Some people have reached great accomplishments by learning on the train ride to work.

So what is the final answer? Here is where the analogy breaks between finding balance in life and crossing a narrow bridge. When you walk over a narrow bridge, there is little room for mistakes. If you lose your balance, you fall off. Life leaves much more room for experimentation. Mistakes are rarely fatal and imbalances are to be expected at times. The important thing is to be conscious of the struggle, to plan and to try to reach the right balance for your circumstances at the time. And, of course, the main thing is not to be scared of the journey.

[1] Cf. Rashi, Bereishis 1:1.
[2] See his Shemonah Perakim, chapter 4; Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Dei’os 1:1-4.
[3] Kiddushin 30a; Avodah Zarah 19b; Tosafos, Kiddushin 30a s.v. lo tzericha, Sanhedrin 24a s.v. belulah; Rema, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 246:4.
[4] Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 249:1.
[5] Avos 2:2.
[6] Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:12.
[7] Cf. C.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, vol. 5 pp. 391-393; Joel Kraemer, “Moses Maimonides: An Intellectual Portrait” in Kenneth Seeskin ed., The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides, p. 28.
[8] Yitzchak Sheilat ed., Iggeros Ha-Rambam, vol. 1 pp. 550-551.
[9] Cf. Or Yisrael, Sha’arei Or, ch. 5 regarding the Chayei Adam; Menahem Glenn, Israel Salanter: Religious-Ethical Thinker, p. 109.

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