The Golden Mean by Rabbi Yosef Adler


 Our Parashah begins with the arrival of three Mal’achim at Avraham's tent. Rashi (BeReishit 18:2 s.v. VeHinei Sheloshah Anashim) states that each angel was assigned a specific task: one to inform Sarah of her upcoming birth, the second to destroy Sedom and Amorah, and the third to heal Avraham, who had just performed the Mitzvah of Berit Milah. As the destruction of Sedom is about to unfold, Hashem says, “HaMechaseh Ani MeiAvraham Asher Ani Oseh?” “Will I hide My intentions [concerning Sedom] from Avraham?” (18:17). The actual dialogue between Hashem and Avraham, though, begins only in Pasuk 20. The two Pesukim in between are God’s comments about Avraham. VeAvraham Hayo Yihyeh LeGoi Gadol…Ki Yedativ LeMa’an Asher Yetzaveh Et Banav VeEt Beito Acharav VeShameru Derech Hashem LaAsot Mishpat UTzedakah,” “And Avraham will surely become a great nation…for I have known him, in order that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will follow Hashem’s way to engage in justice and righteousness” (18:18-19).

Rambam, in Perek Alef of Hilchot Dei’ot, claims that this last Pasuk is the basis for the requirement to follow the Derech HaEmtza’i, the middle path, more frequently referred to as the Shevil HaZahav, the golden mean. Rambam writes, “VeKeitzad Yargil Adam Atzmo BeDei’ot Eilu Ad SheYikav’u Bo? Ya’aseh VeYeshaneh VeYeshalesh BeMa’asim SheOseh Al Pi HaDei’ot HaEmtza’iyot…VeHi SheLimeid Avraham Avinu LeVanav, VeZeh Nikra Derech Hashem, SheNe’emar, ‘Ki Yedativ LeMa’an Asher Yetzaveh Et Banav…’,” “How should a person conduct himself in keeping with this knowledge? He shall repeatedly conduct himself according to the middle path…This is what Avraham taught his children, and this is called the way of God, as it says: ‘For I have known him, in order that he will command his children…’” (Hilchot Dei’ot 1:12-13).

The traditional understanding of this directive is that for each character trait one should never pursue the extremes but rather find himself or herself somewhere in the middle. When faced with a provocative situation, one must not be too passive and let it slide, but on the other hand, one must not overreact. However, the Rav, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, believed that this was not the correct interpretation of this cardinal rule. He did not believe that Rambam wants that one should be a perfectly predictable person, such that in any given scenario we could know exactly how he/she would respond. This is not what Rambam has in mind. The Shevil HaZahav is called Derech Hashem, God's way. God is not always predictable. At times He appears as the Erech Apayim, the merciful and compassionate God, and at other times the Keil Kana, the vengeful God. HaKadosh Baruch Hu is identified as the Oseh Shalom, Maker of peace, but at times he is the Ish Milchamah, the Master of war. The Shevil HaZahav, then, is a process. A person must evaluate each situation and decide whether this particular set of circumstances demands a battle cry or peace negotiations. We are not to accept any of the extreme positions. We should not declare war at all turns nor should we always adopt the policy of appeasement. If one were to analyze his responses over the years, he would find that he falls somewhere in the middle. On some occasions one is generous, forgiving, and willing to tolerate, and on other occasions one demands accountability and appropriate behavior. This represents the Derech Hashem, and, as Rambam states, one who follows this path will generate Tovah UVeracha, goodness and blessing, for himself and his surroundings.

Editor’s note: In keeping with this approach, the Rav supported the American intervention in Vietnam but opposed Israel trading land for peace with its Arab neighbors. By contrast, his brother Rav Ahron opposed American involvement in Vietnam yet supported Israel trading land for peace with Arab nations. Regarding Vietnam the Rav was a hawk and regarding Israel he was a dove (and vice versa for Rav Ahron), in keeping with the above interpretation of the Rambam’s Shevil HaZahav.

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