Inspiration

You Can Do It! (But Should You?)

November 30, 2017

I’ve put on some weight recently. I’m okay with that.

I’m not a health-and-fitness columnist but I’ve had occasion to discuss such things, overtly or obliquely, in various articles over the years. For the longest time, my goal was to break 200 lbs. – a goal I never considered achievable. With the help of some intense programs at my local gym, I finally broke 200. When I hit 185, I was thrilled. When I got as low as 177, I was amazed – I was trimmer than I ever imagined possible!

However, this took a lot of work. I was at the gym eight times a week (six days a week, twice a day on two of those days) and my eating was extremely regimented. Maintaining that physique was a lot of work! The question is: was it worth it?

There are certainly times when one must up their game – when training for a fight or a race, for example – but is it viable for a private citizen who is not a professional athlete to live in a perpetual state of training? I ultimately decided that, for me, the answer is no.

That doesn’t mean that I gave up. I’m still at the gym six times a week and I try to eat well but, having given up the intensity to which I had become accustomed, it was inevitable that I was going to put some of the weight back on. That’s okay. I gave up being in “awesome” shape for being in “pretty good” shape; I made concessions in one area in order to make gains in other areas. That’s the power of moderation.

Judaism is all about moderation, even in areas that we consider to be “positive” traits. For example, we are supposed to be generous, giving 10% of our incomes to charity. But there are limits! One is not permitted to give more than 20% of his income to charity (unless he’s so fabulously wealthy that he won’t miss it). Generosity is a desirable trait but not if one is going to impoverish himself – that’s just foolish!

Similarly, we are supposed to be humble. Does that mean that we should let others walk all over us? Of course not! That’s not humility, it’s low self-esteem. A person who has taken things too far in the opposite direction has to work on having a higher self-image, reminding himself that he is created in the image of God. (See more about that here.)

The Rambam takes this approach in the first chapter of Hilchos Deios. He writes:

“(1:2) Each character trait may have contrasting extremes but there also a variety of distinct moderate points. … (1:3) The two extremes of each trait do not represent a good path for a person to follow. A person should not act according to these extremes, nor should he train himself in them. If one discovers that his natural inclination is towards one of the extremes, or if he has acquired one of the extremes, he should bring himself back to proper path, which is moderation. This is the straight path.

“(1:4) The straight path is the midpoint of each character trait that a person possesses. It should be equidistant from the two extremes, not too close to either of them. Therefore, the Sages said that a person must evaluate his traits in order to evaluate them and redirect them towards the middle path. For example, one should not be easily angered, nor should he be stoic without feeling. Rather, he should strive for moderation, only showing anger when some situation actually warrants it, in order to keep that situation from recurring. … Along these lines, a person should not work his business excessively; he should only work to earn what he needs for immediate use as per Psalms 37:16, “A little is sufficient for a righteous person.” One should not be too stingy, nor should he throw his money about. Rather, one should give charity according to his ability and lend to the needy as is appropriate. One should not be too giddy, nor should one be too negative and gloomy. Rather, one should be quietly happy at all times, with a friendly face. This moderate approach applies to all character traits. This is called the path of the wise. Anyone whose traits are moderate and well-centered along the spectrum may be considered a wise person.”

My absolute favorite mishna is the statement of Ben Hei Hei in the fifth chapter of Avos: l’fum tzaara agra – “According to the effort is the reward.” This is easily the shortest mishna in all of Shas. (I would joke that it’s ironic – Ben Hei Hei’s dictum is only three words long; how much effort did he put into that? Of course, saying something meaningful in a concise way is actually much harder than doing so verbosely!)

Ben Hei Hei tells us – and experience confirms – that if you put in more effort, you’ll get better results. The question is, is that what you want? You can make more money if you work nights and weekends but you’ll never see your family. Is that a fair trade? I decided that more leisure time and the occasional ice cream cone was worth going up a T-shirt size. With effort, we can reach our goals but that doesn’t mean that every goal is necessarily worth the effort. You have to strike a balance with the other aspects of your life. Moderation is the key. Always make sure that the agra is worth the tzaara.