Mishpatim: Our Goal in Life

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Humans like to strive for perfection. However, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Chabad Rebbe, wrote an entire book about reaching the level of a ‘beinoni,’ commonly translated as ‘mediocre.’ What exactly did he mean?

Lesson Contents:

A. The New Approach

In his monumental work of the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe describes the human condition as a conflict between two souls, a G-dly soul and an animal soul. This is not a conflict between good and bad, but rather a contest between the reality of the world and the search for spirituality (Source 1 & 2).

B. The Ideal: Beinoni

The ideal for ordinary human beings isn’t to become a tzaddik, someone who transforms his animal soul into something G-dly. Rather, it is to fight the perpetual struggle to retain control over one’s faculties of thought, speech, and deeds, ensuring that they remain under the dominion of the G-dly soul.

Contrary to many teachers of ethics who maintain that a person should strive for a state in which his actions are in complete identification with his essence — something almost perpetually out of our reach — the Alter Rebbe asserts that a person should strive for control over his behavior; a much more feasible goal (Source 3 & 4).

Before a soul enters a body, an oath is administered to it: “Be righteous and be not wicked.” As the Alter Rebbe explains, this is an injunction to strive for the status of the beinoni (Source 5 &6). The Rebbe points out in Source 7 that this also means a person is given the power to achieve the goal.

C. The Great Question

But a careful look at the Alter Rebbe’s description of the beinoni seems to put it beyond our reach. The beinoni is someone who never sins at all! Is that really feasible?

The answer, the Rebbe explains, lies in a nondescript law in Maimonides. 

This week’s Torah portion speaks of the oaths one takes in court (Source 8). Maimonides tells us that before the oath was stated, the individual would be told that the oath would be interpreted according to the understanding of the judges — regardless of the individual’s personal intent (Source 9).

This answers our question. Before we are born, we are administered an oath to be righteous. That means it’s on G-d’s terms. G-d knows the real difficulties we face, G-d knows that we will ultimately do the right thing, and G-d knows that we want to do the right thing — even at the very moment of failure.

Being a beinoni seems to be difficult, but that’s only true from a human perspective. Let G-d make those judgments, and meanwhile, you try your best.

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