The Definitions of Good People

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

With the upcoming Rosh Chodesh Adar Sheni (which means Purim and then Pesach), I want to mention As If We Were There, a book I published three years ago. It’s a set of daily readings, starting with Rosh Chodesh Nisan taking us through the end of Pesach which I honestly believe will reshape a reader’s experience of the holiday and its impact on the rest of our year (hence the subtitle, Readings for a Transformative Passover Experience). The book’s available here, and I’d be grateful if you buy it and read it (or, if you’ve read it, get it for friends…). Thanks. Enough with the plug, on to the 12th sha’ar of Akedat Yitzchak.

The Definitions of Good People

R. Arama opens his twelfth sha’ar (about Parshat Noach, although we won’t get to the story until next time) with Midrash Shocher Tov Tehillim 1, which contrasts Noach to the generation of Enosh (before the Flood), the Flood itself, and the dor haflagah, literally the generation of the Tower of Bavel (literally, of separation, since people scatter all over the earth).

The Midrash springboards him to his topic, the levels of goodness or evil among groups of people. He divides people into two groups, one of which he subdivides into three (making four total; I enjoyed watching him do this, since mori ve-rabi R. Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l favored the locution as well, often speaking of a question which divides into two, the latter group of which further splits).

Four Types of People

His first category, to which he will return after defining the second one (I think he puts them first because he approves of them), act with a goal in mind, and judge actions and events by whether they further or distance them from their goal. The second type are ruled by their material sides, do not bother with purposes or goals, obey any and all instincts, like fish, birds, or animals.

Among the first group, all of whom have an advantage over the second, the goals they choose affect how well-directed they are. Some set their goals according to what the intellect says to do, and are the most Gdly of people (R. Arama cites Sanhedrin 97b, where R. Yirmiyah quotes R. Shim’on b. Yochai, who said he had seen the most elevated of people and there were few of them; R. Arama clearly assumes something other than pure intellect shapes philosophers view of the world, since he does not include them among the most Gdly of people).

The second subgroup make material success and pleasure their goal. Aristotle already denigrated such people for their animalistic choices; R. Arama thinks they are usually as rare as the first group (their opposites; just as it’s rare to follow the intellect totally, it’s rare to fall into the trap of making the material one’s sole end in life). The spread of evil in his time has led them to proliferate. [I’m not convinced it was an anomaly of his time; his confidence in people not being generally so foolish as to make the material the goal seems to me misplaced.]

The third group, the majority, yield to some physical desires while basing many choices on the intellect—which, as you might remember, he held was the only true way to making free choices. Choices made in subjection to our baser selves are not truly free. He therefore calls the intellect applied to such choices the sechel retzoni, the choosing intellect, or retzon sichli, intellectual will.

Purity Works, So Does Proper Mixing

The three kinds of motives fit categories articulated by political philosophers, good, pleasant, and productive. The purely intellectual group count as good; the physically focused are pleasure-seekers, and the third group productively combine the two.

For all his praise of the first group, R. Arama is also comfortable with the third. Following what the intellect dictates will produce the best answers, but requires an almost complete removal from this world, which Hashem never obligated or implied. As long as people are engaged in the overall project of achieving the good, reasonable pleasure is fully proper [It feels to me—I might be projecting—as if he is trying to reassure his audience, does not want them to worry he seeks to deny them all pleasure].

The trees of the Garden reflected the idea we are allowed to mix the intellectual and the pleasurable. The Tree of Knowledge was adjunct to the (intellectual) Tree of Life, as we’ve seen many times, yet Hashem also included trees described as appealing to the eye and good to eat. Adam and Chava were allowed to enjoy all the trees, in the right proportions.

Similarly, Hashem decided to make a helpmeet for Adam, who, in R. Arama’s construction of her traits was more physically and pleasure focused than Adam. R. Arama references Kohelet’s idea of a three-fold chain not soon being broken, in this case a life which combines the intellectual, moral, and physical in their proper proportions.

Irredeemable Whimsy

I skipped digressions to other sources which R. Arama reads as reflecting the idea of mixing the intellectual and physical, after which he returns to the second overall group, the people who allow themselves to descend to the level of animals by giving in completely to their physical sides, with no goals or purposes by which they direct their lives, which also means no concept of good or bad. With no true cares, they follow whatever appeals to them in the moment.

Worse, they enjoy the spontaneity, the idea of drifting wherever appeal blows them. Mishlei 2;14 speaks of people happy to do evil, who rejoice in tahapuchot ra. Contemporary translations use words such as perverseness or twistedness for tahapuchot; R. Arama is being more literal, the turnarounds or flipflops of evil. They enjoy opposites, a stingy person will enjoy wasting money if the urge arises, because such a persoin’s true allegiance is to doing what feels good in the moment.

Such people will never produce anything useful, for themselves or the world. Nor will they be able to form societies in which they help others, R. Arama says. He sees them as the height of evil (because of their refusal to set goals and work towards some purpose, which would at least give them a sense of good and bad), and evil defeats itself.

[Both his claims might be denied today, and therefore seem worth stressing: he declared lack of goals, following desires as they arise, the greatest evil, reminding us how deeply committed he is to the necessity of golas and long-term thinking. Second, he believes evil cannot sustain itself, bears the seeds of its own destruction, although we may fight to bring it down more quickly.]

Leaders and Discipline

I am skipping most of his extended reading of the parable of the thornbush from Shofetim 9. Two points of his I do want to review: first, people—especially those with goals—seek a leader to guide them, knowing it will enhance the likelihood of achieving their goals [I wonder whether people today agree, especially in democratic countries—do we seek to elect leaders, who chart our course towards our goals, or lackeys, who tell us what we want to hear?].

He drops the point before elaborating it fully, because he gets caught up in the symbolism of the trees in the parable. (Fitting with what we saw in the previous section, he is sure those who chase physical pleasures care more about the right to obey every urge than the specific pleasures.) His reading of Shofetim aside, R. Arama is sure Hashem created three kinds of desire meant to be “chained and limited” (we would say disciplined). Bereshit Rabbah 20 adds a fourth; in explaining the four, R. Arama will give us his sense of how to properly balance our various urges.

The Midrash spoke of the desire of a woman for her husband (as Hashem had told Chavah in Bereshit 3;16, part of her punishment for eating of the Tree of Knowledge), of rain to reach the ground, of Hashem for the Jewish people (as in Shir ha-Shirim 7;11, I am for my beloved, ve-‘alai teshukato, his desire is for me), and the evil inclination for Kayin, Bereshit 4; 7, where Kayin is specifically told he will (and should) rule over it.

The Four Desires

For R. Arama, the Midrash was guiding us in the proper use of three kinds of desire, rejecting a fourth completely. Marital desire refers to all the pleasant experiences needed to sustain life, such as the desire to procreate. Scripture and Talmudic sources often use women to symbolize such desires, and people need to indulge and enjoy them in proper measure (as part of productive overall lives, I think he means, not making them an end of their own).

Rain symbolizes earning a living (it “desires” the ground to help it grow its crops), another area where people can be excessive, turn a means into an end, the whole of their focus.

He thinks the best desire, described in the Midrash as Hashem’s “desire” for the Jewish people, is Hashem’s having given us the Torah, which shows the good and the straight. Other nations choose what seems good to them, Shir HaShirim tells us we have a better option, we are for our Beloved, because ‘alai teshukato, His desires are upon us, we know exactly what we should be doing.

Last, the Midrash brings us back to what R. Arama has already fully rejected, the willful insistence of a Kayin on doing what he wants, whenever he wants.

Good comes from disciplined and limited involvement in various activities, evil in giving in to whatever and whenever.

The Unity of Good People

People of discipline also have the advantage of being able to form lasting unions. Joint dedication to a purpose, even a temporary and limited one, fosters fondness and fraternity, forestalling division and rupture. Members of a group may come to disagree, but will take care to limit those disagreements in a way which lets them stay together [communities and societies today could use the lesson of the greater value of staying together than insisting on everyting we want].

Kiddushin 30b offers an example, R. Chiyya b. Aba reads Tehillim 127;5 (ki yedabberu et oy-vim ba-sha’ar, when they contend with enemies in court) to refer to the process of Torah study, where fathers and sons, teachers and students, become temporary enemies as they tussle over issues. They do not end the session, however, before returning to great love, as Bamidbar 21;14 says, et vahev be-sufah, there will be love (ahavah) in the end.

They will return to amity and comity, R. Arama thinks, because they will come to realize they are disagreeing on details of how to express ideas and ideals they share. The same idea explains how Chagigah 3b can speak of the two sides to an argument as both being divrei Elokim Chayyim, words of the Living Gd. They all want to serve Hashem’s purposes, find the best way to apply Torah and mitzvot to this world, make it a more Gdly place.

They share more than they differ, he means, and as they realize this, they are brought closer, regardless of their disagreement over specifics. It’s why Avot 5;17 says any dispute for the sake of Heaven is fated to last; since the sides want the same result, differ only in their understanding of the best tactics to get there, their agreement overrides their disagreements, and they will find their way to agreement about how to proceed in their common goal.

[I try to stay away from politics, but as I wrote this, it seemed to me a warning to the United States of America, where it’s no longer clear to me the different factions do share an overall goal. All sides want what’s best for the country, but their vision of what the country is, should be, and/or stands for, seems to me to be rapidly diverging. I hope not.]

The Disunity of Disordered Desire

Evildoers cannot reach such unity, since they want what they want, with nothing to bring them together in any lasting way. One likes food, the other sexual immorality, the other robbery, and many more manifestations of desire. Since no evildoer can find another with the exact same desires, their love will never last.

They can and do occasionally band together, for a limited purpose, but they eventually descend into strife and war, hurting themselves, friends, and relatives (who get caught in the crossfire; R. Arama does not put a time frame on this, so if a Mafia “family” is successful for decades, he might still be correct, they will eventually break up, badly and bloodily, when their needs no longer align).

Next time, R. Arama will begin to apply his ideas to the story of Noach.

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