- Who is Better?
- Moshe Ben-Chaim
- In the sixth of his "Eight Chapters", (found at the
commencement of Tractate Avos) Maimonides distinguishes between the
two types of people who refrain from sin: 1) The suppressor of one's
instincts, and 2) The one attached to the good, who doesnt need to
suppress. He compares the words of the philosophers who bring
seemingly contradictory statements: "One who is naturally
attached to the good is better than one who is not." And another
statement, "One who suppresses his desires is better than one who
- So, who is better? It seems like a powerful contradiction.
- But Maimonides carefully analyzes the statements of the Rabbis and
leads us to the answer. He quotes further statements:
- A. "Rabbi Simeon son of Gamliel states, "One
should not say 'I do not desire meat and milk, wearing shaatnez and
sexually prohibited acts'. But one should say 'I do desire meat and
milk, wearing shaatnez and sexually prohibited acts, but what shall
I do, my Father in heaven commanded me against them."
- B. "One who does not desire murder, stealing and
embarrassing parents is better than one who does."
- We must ask a crucial question: What do the Rabbis mean by one is
"better"? We must have a framework in which to gauge who is
"better", better at what?
- I believe "better" must be defined as "who is closer
to the truth". Maimonides intends to show how statements A and B
are in no contradiction. He does so by defining the area in which each
statement applies. Statement A is dealing with one set of ideals,
distinct from statement B.
- Statement A Maimonides calls the "Mitzvos Sichlyos" or
"Intelligent Laws". "Had we not been commanded in them,
our intelligence would still demand we follow them." They include
the types of commands as he mentioned, murder, stealing and
embarrassing parents. In these areas, since one's mind would demand
they be followed even without Divine commands, if one still years for
them, he is not "better". His mind is corrupt. Thus
the term "Intelligent Laws". One whose desires are not
attached to these areas is more perfect, more in line with the truth
than one who is attached.
- Not so regarding the second area, "HaToros HaShamyus". The
Rabbis said, "Man is commanded to desire sins." Also,
"The Rabbis warned that we do not deny these desires are in our
nature". Maimonides is showing the utmost consistency in the
words of the Rabbis. In both cases, we are bidden to attach
ourselves to the truth. In this second area, we are dealing with man's
natural drives, i.e., "meat and milk, wearing shaatnez and
sexually prohibited acts". These are part of man's inherent,
psychological structure. There is no man who does not desire 1) sex,
2) food, and 3) clothing. Translated into our psychological faculties
as 1) the sexual drive, 2) the appetitive drive , and 3) the ego. In
this area, to say "I do not desire these", is a complete
denial of our psychological reality. One is not better - closer to the
truth - when denying his very nature. It is as if to say, "I deny
that I bleed when I am cut." This statement is as distant from
the truth as one who says "I do not desire sex, food or
When examined clearly by Maimonides, we realize that the two
statements which originally seemed contradictory, are actually
complimentary. Who is "better" really means, "Who is
closer to the truth".
- In the area of intelligent laws, one is closer to the truth when
he admits what his mind tells him, that murder destroys the very
society in which he himself desires to dwell. In the instinctual laws,
again, man is "better", closer to the truth, when he
admits what his mind tells him - that he has desires.
- One who denies his desires, or one who desires murder are both
far from the truth.
- Who is "better"? One who is attached to the truth.