All or Nothing Perfection
R. Arama tells us he plans to make two points in the seventeenth sha’ar. First, admirable qualities are not separate from mitzvot, and, second, Avraham was shown the spiritual rewards for goodness, which became part of his belief in Hashem.
The Midrash he cites to start him on the way speaks of Avraham’s worries about his reward, to which R. Arama will return later. It leads him, preliminarily, to consider the apparent challenge of reward. To his mind (at this point), spiritual success must be complete to be meaningful, which would mean only those who achieve all the best character traits and other forms of goodness will merit any reward.
Similarly, Devarim 4;9-10 warns us to be exceedingly careful, to guard our souls greatly, lest we forget what we saw at Sina. In R. Arama’s reading, the Torah means to require us to retain the entire experience, the full impact of the moment and all the lessons learned there, general and specific (as he plans to elaborate in sha’ar 68).
Lacks in character development and/or observance of mitzvot, he thinks, affect the whole picture, seem to stop us from deserving any reward. Rambam makes a similar point in his introduction to Avot. Based on Pesachim 66b, a prophet can lose his/her prophecy for becoming angry, Rambam thinks any character imperfections create barriers between a person and Hashem, which hinder prophecy.
Yet Kohelet 7;20 is sure no human is so perfect as not to sin.
R. Arama wants to understand how all three can be true, perfection is interconnected and all or nothing, no human being achieves full perfection, and there are people who achieve prophecy and great reward.
Where We Start, What We Understand, What We Actualize
R. Arama’s first step is to note he has overstated the interconnection of perfection. We see people who are courageous without humility or diligence, who spend money wisely and well without other excellences, and so on.
He finds the explanation in Aristotle’s distinction between natural and acquired qualities. People are born with certain traits, heroic, generous, kind; to R. Arama, those traits can come singly, not in a unit. To acquire a character trait, however, a person must understand all the traits which make up perfection, as they are inseparable.
[He does not explain what leads him to be sure of this—I can imagine someone who works on generosity, comes to understand it, develops it within himself, without touching on or thinking about anger or courage. The best I can understand right now, R. Arama thinks the generosity will lack something for its failure to see how courage or wisdom or humility shape it. Still, I would have thought he would then say there’s some element of achievement in a trait on its own, but it cannot be complete without the others. We’ll see.]
Some people who seem excellent to us only display a natural characteristic, which do not reflect any perfection or credit of their, since it’s just the way they were born. Making matters difficult, only Hashem knows the difference. Shlomo HaMelech captures the dilemma in Mishlei 20, when he speaks of people who call themselves (and may honestly think of themselves) as pious or righteous, when few are actually ish emunah, people who have achieved their excellence.
The Positive Fuels the Negative
He compares a person who has false weights and measures but is proud of the few honest ones she does have to one who congratulates him or herself for good character traits when there are still problematic ones. The honest weight becomes part of the problem, R. Arama thinks, fools the person into thinking of him/herself as somewhat honest, making it easier to justify his/her other dishonesty.
His next analogy perhaps brings us a step closer to understanding what he means. Our eyesight is helped by our hearing, and vice versa, such that no one of our bodily senses functions fully if others are malfunctioning [we today sometimes say people who lose one sense find their other senses heightened; I think R. Arama is suggesting elements of hearing are helped by sight—such as when we can supplement hearing with reading lips—and vice versa.]
One Mitzvah, One Character Trait as Part of a Whole
Mitzvot, too, are a whole system. To say one keeps x group of mitzvot while ignoring/violating others (willfully, I think he means) makes no sense. It’s why—he says—Kiddushin 39b tells us whoever performs one mitzvah is given goodness of reward, long life, and inheriting the Land, and whoever does not, does not.
He cannot accept the Gemara literally, unable to see how one mitzvah would justify such great reward, especially the Land, which can only be earned by observing all the mitzvot or keeping the prohibition against worshipping powers other than Hashem, which is considered as important or the equal of the other mitzvot. Someone who neglects even one mitzvah should not be able to merit the Gemara’s view of reward, which proves his point, he thinks—such a Gemara means anyone who keeps one mitzvah by virtue of having arrived at it through effort necessarily knows or cares about all the rest, and therefore can garner such great reward.
It’s why Devarim 8;1 speaks of being careful to keep all the mitzvot Hashem commanded, which R. Arama thinks means keep any one of them with the full awareness and commitment to all.
What’s Wrong With Being Naturally Good
As further explanation, he calls our attention to Horayot 10b’s reading of Hoshe’a 14; 10. The verse says evildoers will stumble in the ways of Hashem, and the Gemara gives the example of one who offers a Pesach sacrifice for the sake of achilah gasah, eating beyond satiety, where any further eating is a burden. To R. Arama, the Gemara complains about the person’s using what should be a mitzvah for a human experience.
He thinks the same view animates Torat Kohanim Kedoshim 9’s telling Jews not to eat pig because they dislike it; they should do it because it is Hashem’s command. [Rambam in the introduction to Avot previously referenced thought the issue was the lack of an intuitive reason to object to pork; R. Arama is locating the problem in it being part of a person’s nature as opposed to a response to a divine command.]
What comes naturally to us cannot count as obedience to Hashem, which R. Arama sees as the point and concern of mitzvot. He offers more examples, but I think he has made his claim clear enough: doing even one mitzvah because of Gd’s command, developing one character trait according to what Hashem wants, must necessarily include all the others (I think he means potentially, or in the person’s commitment to them). It is meaningless to respond to Hashem’s command on one issue or character trait while we intend to willfully violate others.
He’s a bit harder to understand in terms of the piecemeal nature of human development—I might have already achieved much excellence in my humility or control of my anger [I wish!] while not yet having made full progress towards control of some other appetites. I cannot imagine he does not recognize this; I think he means the actualization of commitment can come at various times, as long as the overall commitment is always there.
As long as the person is developing in response to Hashem’s commands. What we’re born with helps us in that we don’t have to put in much effort to develop them, but they don’t count as part of our cultivated perfections.
Generosity as a Gateway to Excellence
His next lines suggest he might have also thought each excellent character trait leads to another. Generosity leads to battlefield heroism, he says, because the person will give more to others than expect to take himself, including effort during the war; it leads to justice, in that the person will never take what does not belong to him while he’s giving things away anyway [he had not heard of Robin Hood, apparently]; and will lead to compassion, supererogation (chassidut, going above the call of duty, but how can I not use a word like that if my graduate school professor—Prof. Twersky, zt”l—taught it to me?), and modesty (people busy being generous will not want to draw attention to themselves).
By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong With the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and three children.