Monday, September 12, 2011

Teshuba and the tipping point

In his third chapter of Hilkhot Teshuba Maimonides explains that in terms of religious behavior, we find three categories of people: rasha, tsadiq, benoni .

The rasha is the bad person, one whose balance of good actions is negative. He has done more transgressions than good deeds. Then you have the tsadiq, the one who has done more good than bad. And then, there is a benoni, which Maimonides defines as the person whose good and bad actions are equivalent (3:1).

In the next Halkaha (3:2) Maimonides clarifies that the calculation of good or bad actions is inaccessible to us. It does not depend on quantity or anything knowable to us. "only God knows how the merits and sins are estimated". Think about intentions, potential, opportunities, knowledge, etc. Those are matters that only God can bring into account for a fair judgment. Moreover, perceiving ourselves in a fixed situation, will imply a sort of spiritual stagnation: If I see myself as a completely righteous, I might relay too much in my merits and do nothing further to improve. Similarly, if I see myself as bad, I might think that I'm beyond redemption, and do nothing to improve.

Maimonides concludes (4:4) that since we cannot know if we are good or bad "a person should always perceive himself as benoni, standing in a balanced scale between equal amount of merits and sins...". This balanced scale is not stable at all. On the contrary, it is an extremely sensitive and dynamic scale. One good deed or one bad deed tips the scale to either side. My immediate next action will in a sense define if I'm a good person or a bad person.

Maimonides teaches us the best motivation to live a life of constant improvement: When I perceive myself as a benoni, (average) my next action becomes the tipping point of my entire personality. Little actions make the big differences.

Rabbi Yosef Bitton.

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