On being a mensch--an upstanding member of society--and leading an ethical life.

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Maimonides sets out a method of change through behavior modification. He believes that if a person has an extreme quality, such as stinginess, that person should behave in a way that is the opposite extreme--that is, be very generous. One extreme will uproot the other and the person will be able to follow the middle path.

Maimonides understood that motivation is the key to all our actions. We can be long-suffering not because we strive not to be angry but because we are passive. While a rabbinic maxim states: "Who is rich? A person who is satisfied with his lot," Maimonides knew self-satisfaction could be an excuse for laziness.

Maimonides adds: "In your quest for the middle ground, to avoid lust or envy, do not say I won't eat good food, or marry. This is an evil way…. One who follows that path is a sinner" (3:1). The Talmud teaches: "Isn't it enough for you what the Torah has forbidden, that you should want to forbid additional things to yourself?" (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:1). Or as Ecclesiastes (7:16) said: "Don't be too big a tzadik--a righteous person--and don't be too wise."

Maimonides' vision is just one vision of the darkhei hashem, "the path of God," on which we are called to travel. Even within Jewish tradition, there are other models.

A Hasidic View of the Mensch

In Hasidism, for example, humans are perceived as more dynamic in character. Therefore, a golden mean is not only an impossible goal to achieve, but also perhaps not even the correct goal.

Rather than searching for the perfect balance between opposite qualities, the Hasidic model elevates our ability to make the appropriate choice in a particular circumstance. This is more in line with the words of Ecclesiastes (3:1 ff.): "There is a time and place for every thing under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die… a time to love and a time to hate…."

In this model, there is a time to be angry and a time to be placating, a time to be generous and a time to hold back. In the ebb and flow of life, we are often stuck in one place--too often angry; too often generous; too often scared.

We tend to abrogate choice, acting instead in a routine created from our past. The task then is to try to see clearly, to be aware, to avoid the kind of confusion described by Isaiah: "Ah, those who call evil good and good evil; Who present darkness as light and light as darkness" (Isaiah 5:20).

In the world of creation, God's first act is to separate light from darkness. And yet we can only see light because of the contrasting darkness. We live our mortal lives knowing that darkness inevitably follows light. Both light and darkness are necessary, and together they help us see.

We strive to gain clarity, sight, and insight even as we know it will pass, knowing we will achieve clarity only for a brief moment.

A World of Difference and Awareness

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.