Parshat Shoftim: The True Meaning of T’mimut

“Tamim tihi’yeh im HaShem Elokecha” (Devarim 18:13)
“You shall be tamim with HaShem your God.”

The word “tam” in Hebrew is defined in the Even Shushan dictionary as “extraordinarily simple, lacking cunning, naïve… a simple person, unexperienced.”

According to the dictionary, t’mimut implies a lack of critical thinking and sophistication. In fact, a number of sources contrast between the tam and the chacham, portraying them as foils to one another. In his famous tale “A story from the chacham and the tam,” Rebbe Nachman presents two opposing characters – the wise man and the tam. In the Pesach Haggada, we tell of the four children: one of whom is a chacham, another is a tam. The Talmud Yerushalmi goes so far as to call the tam “the fool.”

There is, however, a second meaning to the word “tam” recorded in Even Shushan: “complete”; this is how Targum Onkelos (ad loc) translates our pasuk. At first glance, these two definitions seem to be in conflict, being that t’mimut characterizes the completeness of the Torah, while Torah is full of deep wisdom. As the pasuk states: “HaShem’s Torah is tamim, restores the souls; HaShem’s testimony is faithful, makes the simple wise” (Tehillim 19:8).

Moreover, the midrash sees t’mimut as a divine quality which one should strive to emulate:
“Do you want God to be with you? Take [on the attribute of] t’mimut… simplicity is beautiful before God, as the pasuk says “Be tamim with HaShem you God” (Devarim 18:13) — just as He is tamim as the passuk says: “The Rock, His work is tamim” (Devarim 32:4) and His Torah is tamim as it says: “HaShem’s Torah is tamim” (Tehilim 19:8). (Midrash Tehilim 119)

So, what exactly is t’mimut? Is it cunning brilliance or the lack thereof? The highest, deepest insight or shallow and superficial appraisal?

Two Types of T’mimut

Hands with lightThe kabalistic understanding of the “tam” sheds light on the connection between the two connotations of the word:
In the merit of Avraham, who achieved the attribute of chesed, Yitzchak achieved the attribute of fear, and since Yitzchak achieved the attribute of fear, Yaakov achieved the attribute of truth, which is the attribute of peace. God attributed to him His own attribute as it says “Yaakov was an ish tam, sitting in tents” (Bereishit 25:27), and “tam” means “shalom”, and so Onkelos translates it “complete/at peace.” “Tam” means “Torah.” (Sefer Bahir 137)

The Sefer Bahir associates the tam with peace and truth. The kabalistic conception of peace and truth is harmony between conflicting aspects of reality. The Bahir identifies this quality with Yaakov, the ish tam, who represents inclusion and balance of the right side, the trait of giving characterized by Avraham, and left side, the trait of rigid judgment and fear, which is characterized by Yitzchak. Yaakov’s t’mimut is his ability to combine these two aspects.

Meir Even Gabai, the 16th century kabalist and author of To’elet Yaakov, identifies t’mimut specifically with Torah Sheba’al Peh, the oral tradition, because of its all-inclusive nature. The oral torah is multi-faceted and includes in it never-ending commentaries; paradoxically, its infinite nature is the basis of its simplicity and wholeness.

We can define “tam” in way that represents both its meanings. A “tam” is someone who is not cynical and opens himself to accept anyone and anything. Each day he looks at the world afresh and humbly stands in awe to confront the new reality.

This trait can come from one of two places. It can come from a lack of complexity, a simple-mindedness, as in Rebbe Nachman’s story of the tam and the characteristics that propel him to be the hero of the story. It can also arise from a place of depth; this is what the philosopher Akiva Ernst Simon calls “a second t’mimut.” Specifically confronting the complexities of our world enables man to grasp and accept reality in its truest form. Acknowledging the greatness and power of life breeds humility.

To compare the two types of t’mimut: with the first t’mimut one is unaware of what is lacking in the world because he is unable to penetrate through to the depths, instead he accepts reality on a superficial level. In the second level of t’mimut, on the other hand, one acknowledges the hardships and brokenness of the world, but comes to terms with these difficulties. His ability to accept reality comes from an understanding that there are built-in limitations in this world. Therefore, the tam does not see himself as superior to others when he identifies a weakness because he knows that he, too, has his own weaknesses and limitations. He is able to accept others and value them because his broad prospective enables him not turn a blind eye to the evils of the world, but to seek out and find the good hidden in the most broken places.

To the first tam, the world is mysterious because he lacks depth and profundity. To the second tam, however, the world is a mystery because of his ability to internalize the complexities of reality. He understands that there are many things in this world whose purpose he can never fully understand.

The Four Children

The tam and the chacham are two of the four children mentioned in the Pesach Haggada. We can see the four children as representative personalities of four developmental stages that every person passes through. In the first stage, the child cannot even properly articulate a question; he is the she’eino yode’a lishol. He then takes on the persona of the tam and, in all his innocence, is ready to accept simple answers to life’s big questions. These answers do not truly penetrate to the depths of the issue, but the tam is unaware of these complexities; he lives in a world of harmony and all seems orderly from his perspective. This innocence carries with it a certain air of calm and tranquility, but, at the end of the day, it is just an illusion. Ultimately the world is complex, and eventually the child will grow up one day and find that life is not at all simple.

The stage of simple innocence is followed by the stage that is represented by the ben ha’rasha – the, so to speak, “wicked child.” In this stage, he realizes that the questions are far more convincing than their respective answers, which can lead to a crisis of faith. He is enraged with those who fed him simple-minded half-truths and belittles those who continue to put their faith in these simple explanations which he now sees as simplistic and superficial, if not outright lies. He loses faith in the society that raised him and its surrounding culture. When he was young and innocent, he believed in everything; now, he believes in nothing. Finally, he matures and becomes the chacham, the wise son. Just like the rasha, he acknowledges the complexities of existence, but his observations lead him to entirely different conclusions. The world is complicated and full of contradictions, but he understands that the expectation of complete answers to all of life’s questions is a mere fantasy. The limitations of these explanations speak to the nature of an unknowable universe. The easy option would be to reject everything. It is far more difficult to seek out the broken shards of truth and positivity that lay scattered in everyman and everyplace and find meaning in them. The chacham humbly approaches reality and revels in the beauty of its unknowable, hidden nature. This is the t’mimut that we strive towards, a t’mimut that “restores the soul,” the t’mimut referred to in the old chassidic adage, “T’mimut is greater than wisdom, but how wise must one be to be tamim.”

Rav Yaakov Nagen
Yakov Nagen (Genack) is a Rom at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and a member of “Beit Hillel”.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Yaakov Tzemach


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