Finding a middle path that allows us to savor life fully while also cultivating spiritual, emotional, and physical health is central to Jewish tradition.
Perhaps the clearest expression of this Jewish approach to finding balance was articulated by the great Jewish thinker and physician Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), who taught that through study and cultivation of new actions and ways of thinking, each of us can be elevated to “walk in God’s ways.” Maimonides advocated the pursuit of a middle path in which one is “neither…easily angered” nor, like the dead, “does not feel.”
In some instances, to loosen the hold on habitual patterns, he encouraged individuals to behave in the opposite way of their own inclinations; if a person tends to be stingy, for example, he should attempt to give generously. One’s emotions also needed to be balanced. To increase happiness during festival celebrations, for example, children should be given food treats; women, gifts of jewelry and fine clothing (as means allowed); and men, meat and wine..., “yet, [the meal of] one who eats and drinks with his wife and children but locks his gates and gives nothing to the poor…is not [celebrating] ‘the joy of the commandment’ but the joy of his stomach—a kind of disgrace” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Festivals, 6:18).
Maimonides applied the principle of balance not only to character traits but also to matters of health. Given the human tendency to engage in unhealthy practices, he advised personal struggle against such excesses. Yet he also cautioned against never indulging in enjoyable things, as this might lead to bitterness and a sense of failure. Commenting on a verse in Ecclesiastes, “Be not overrighteous” (7:16), he wrote: “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” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Character Development and Ethical Ideas 3:1). Again, the best approach is moderation.
In our own day, how many of us vow to go on a strict diet, to exercise a certain amount each week, to refrain from speaking harshly to a friend—and then feel discouraged when we do not abide by our resolutions? Utilizing Maimonides’ approach, we might recognize that extreme, total change is unlikely and aim instead toward achievable, incremental adjustments, taking pride in each advance as we slowly work toward a greater goal. We might seek a healthier diet by beginning with foods we enjoy, try to modulate how we express anger instead of suppressing it, or take the stairs more often rather than taking on a marathon.
Notably, even the struggle to find the “golden mean” needs to be done in moderation. Judaism teaches us not to attempt a fully measured life, for too much evenness can result in a life lacking in passion, moral courage, creativity, and/or depth.
On the High Holy Days, as we seek to move out of whatever stasis we have settled into, we read these words from Maimonides’ laws of repentance: “One should see the world, and see oneself, on a scale with an equal balance of good and evil. When he does one good deed, the scale is tipped to the good—the world is saved. When one does one evil deed, the scale is tipped to the bad—and the world is destroyed” (Hil. Teshuva 3:4).
At various points we may find our world or ourselves in an unhealthy balance, whereby good and evil exist in equal measure. To leave matters in this state is contrary to Jewish tradition; rather, we must take actions in an effort to tilt the whole world toward good. The scale may be tipped by a weight as light as a feather, and so we are reminded that the smallest of actions can be redemptive. If it were not this way, if the scales of life always stayed in perfect balance, how could we achieve teshuvah (repentence), moving from equilibrium to effectual change?
Thus, in Judaism balance also encompasses the drive to better the world. Perhaps this is why Jewish time and evolution are conceived as a spiral moving upwards rather than a circle returning always to the same place.
The great Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then who am I? If not now, when?” Embodied in this statement is a call to action—to go from where we are now to where we need to go. With guidance, encouragement, and love from our families and Jewish communities, we can help each other to find balance, to traverse difficult paths, and, with courage, to climb to greater heights.
Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher is a clinical social work psychotherapist, author, and organizational consultant.