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Beinonim: why it’s important to embrace average

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“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”

When we think about those elusive heavenly books, we usually think of two books: a book of death; and book of life. And yet, the Gemarah in Rosh Hashanah 16b imagines that there are three books, not two, that are open on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur: “One of absolute sinners; one of absolute tzadikim; and one of beinonim (in-betweeners).”

The Gemarah introduces the category of beinonim, translated here as a person who is in the middle, from the word “bein” (in-between) – middling people, who are neither good, nor bad, waiting for their fate to be determined.

It’s these middling people, according to the Gemarah, who are influenced by the evil inclination and the good inclination, the yetzer hara and yetzer tov. (Rosh Hashanah 61b)

And who among us aren’t beinonim? Who hasn’t had the experience of cultivating the best parts of ourselves, even as the worst parts threaten to emerge? Of grappling with behaviours that may be destructive while at the same time, being arbitrators of chesed and kindness? This duality is entirely human, as old as Adam and Chava, who ate from a Tree of Knowledge, and from that day on, had to contend with the choices, good and bad, the ethical dilemmas that inundate our lives.

Who among us isn’t an in-betweener?

The Gemarah continues with this point exactly: “Rabba said, ‘People like us are middling.’” Rabba, a third-generation amora (scholar), the head of the Yeshiva in Pumbedita and teacher to many, describes himself as a beinonim? To which Abaya, his student and nephew, quips, “If the master claims that he’s merely middling, he doesn’t leave room for any creature to live. If a person like you is middling, what of the rest of us?”

If Rabba is just average, aren’t we all indeed beinonim? I believe the answer to this question is a resounding yes.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, understood our average, middling humanness inherently. The Alter Rebbe, as he was known, was the founder of the Chabad movement. He’s the author of Tanya, written in 1797, as a compilation of Chassidic philosophy. The Alter Rebbe subtitled Tanya, “Sefer shel benonim”, the book of in-betweeners. In fact, he originally wanted to call the book “Sefer shel benonim”, intending it to be primarily for the average person. In his research on Tanya, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explains why the book was written for beinonim, saying that being a tzadik, a perfectly righteous individual, isn’t attainable for most of us, and it’s not even expected that we can and will reach such heights. The beinoni, however, is an ideal that everyone can attain.

Rabbi Steinsaltz explains, “The intermediate person isn’t merely the median, the halfway point between utter evil and utter goodness. Neither compromise nor a composite, the beinoni is in a class alone, an elevated individual.”

The beinonim have to build up a store of resilience. The hardship and struggles of our world have the potential to send us into a tailspin. If we expect perfection from ourselves, I can only imagine that we demand the same perfection from others. When we confront inevitable struggle, it’s the beinonim, those of us who are used to navigating the slippery and difficult pathways of our lives, that have built the resilience to emerge. It’s this attitude of beinonim that will prepare us for the disappointments and hardships in our lives.

I was taken by an OpEd in The New York Times by Sarah Wildman, titled, “I don’t need my life to be remarkable.” She describes how when she was young, newly married, and carefree, an older friend advised, “Don’t look for every moment to be a 10. Sometimes you have to celebrate the fours, fives, and sixes.”

They would laugh at this unimaginable thought of not striving for perfection. Anything else would be akin to failure. And then the inevitable trials and tribulations of life hit them, and they were no longer laughing. She writes, “I’ve come to see the wisdom in not just seeking but finding joy in the mundane, in the unremarkable, even in the frankly boring, particularly in this era of global – and personal – illness.” And then she quotes the line from Unetaneh Tokef – not the famous “Who shall live and who shall die” but, “Who shall be at rest and who shall wander.” In Hebrew, that sentence is a play on words, a single letter altering the meaning from “rest” (yanuach) to “wander” (yanuah). I have wondered how my family can find rest as we wander. It has been, and continues to be in these small, in-between moments, in the noticing.”

We end Musaf with the prayer, “Today may you strengthen us. Today may you bless us.” In the Hebrew language, the word used to describe the present tense is zman beinoni or “intermediate time”. The present tense is called beinoni because it’s in the middle, between the past and the future. We can grasp the past; we can measure and describe it. We can also imagine and estimate what will be in the future. But the present is ours to grab hold of and determine how to live.

This year, we have to recalibrate what is normal. If we keep pounding away at ourselves to achieve perfection, if we keep raising the bar for ourselves and others, we may be doomed to disappointment at best, and sheer inability to move forward at worst. But, with resilience, if we can grab a hold of imagining the present, a day that’s entirely average, and the fact that we’re good enough, then we have a chance of feeling joy and even satisfaction in who we are and what we’ve achieved.

Not every moment can be a 10. We should give ourselves permission to experience our lives as average, to recalibrate our expectations to appreciate the mundane, to embrace those moments that are just beinoni. Just average. As we think about our lives, let’s try to embrace not only the 10s, but the 4s and 5s as well.

  • Rabba Sara Hurwitz is the cofounder and president of Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy. She also serves on the rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

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