A Great Mind Explains Why We’re Not Great
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim & Howard Salamon
Maimonides’ Eight Chapters (chap. 4)
Philosophers tell us that it is most difficult and rare to find a man who, by his nature, is endowed with every perfection, moral as well as mental. This thought is expressed often in the prophetical books, as, “Behold in His servants He places no trust, and His angels he accuses with folly” (Job 4:18), “How can man be justified with God? Or how can be pure one that is born of woman?" (Job 25:4), and, “For no man is so righteous upon earth that he should do always good, and never sins” (Koheles 7:20).
Maimonides famously writes in the style of the Written law, where his precise wording adds more ideas to the raw content. Part of that precision is that when he quotes many verses, as he does here, it is not a single lesson with three supports, but three lessons are intended. The different lessons are derived from the differences in the verses.
How can man be justified with God? Or how can be pure one that is born of woman?"
How does “born of a woman” teach more than just “born” or “man”? A woman expresses emotions and instincts to a greater degree than a man. And as man is born from a woman, he shares her psychological design, and thus, shares her instincts. Here, Maimonides offers an argument of “quality”: man’s imperfection (instinctual nature) is based on his quality of possessing instincts.
“For no man is so righteous upon earth that he should do always good, and never sin.”
To what degree can a man perfect himself? We are taught here that even the most righteous man on Earth cannot avoid sin. This teaches that man’s great “quantity” of righteousness cannot avoid the instincts’ opposing influence.
But these two verses are relative to man. There is a third verse, which now addresses God, a verse that shows why in absolute terms, man is imperfect:
“Behold in His servants he places no trust, and His angels he accuses with folly”
The operative word here is “His,” now bringing God into the equation. God is the only being without flaw, as He faults His servants and even angels. The only existing intelligent beings are God, angels and man, and only regarding these is imperfection applicable. But animals and inanimate life have no free will and therefore follow natural law perfectly.
Thus, Maimonides’ lesson is that Torah exhaustively presents all reasons why man is imperfect:
A. Relative to Man:
1) Man possesses the instinctual quality (born of a woman),
2) Man’s instincts cripple even a quantitatively great person (the most righteous can’t avoid sin),
B. Relative to all Existence:
3) God alone is perfect.