I wish I could remember the source of the line, “Extremes are the easiest to explain and the hardest to justify.” I don’t know who said it first, or who said it to me, but it resonated with me then, and as I hear more and more stories of all sorts of people taking all sorts of values to all sorts of extremes, I find myself thinking about it quite a bit.
In theory, it does make a lot of sense to take a value to its extreme. If I believe it is a good thing to give a dollar to tzedaka, then two dollars must be even better. If adding 18 minutes at the beginning of Shabbos is good, an hour must be better. If spending half an hour telling the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim on Pesach night is good, then how much better must it be to spend an hour! Two hours! The whole night!
Of course, we know that line of thought can only go so far, in virtually any realm, before we run into trouble. A theoretically logical line of thought is just that: one line, in one direction, without consideration for the roads and byways we may pass along the way, and without looking ahead to see the brick wall or oncoming vehicle coming towards us if we don’t stop and maybe even sidestep a little. If I don’t look ahead to see the road to my own poverty and dependence on charity, my inability to function in society because I have reached the point of starting Shabbos on Tuesday, the fact that I will miss the zman for kriyat Shema shel shacharit if I don’t end my seder and get moving – I will crash right into those other values.
Every chumra can become a kula, my teachers used to say. They would tell of Rav Chaim of Brisk, who reportedly pointed out that what one person might think is being too lenient about laws of Shabbos, might in some cases be better described as being strict about pikuach nefesh, overriding Shabbos when necessary to save a life. Everything has a flip side, and like Rambam famously says, the ideal in virtually every character trait is to avoid either extreme and find the ideal balance. (Beginning of Hilchot Deot.)
Extremes are so tempting, though. If I just keep giving, I don’t have to put thought into finding the right balance between my own needs and those of others. If I put on a burka, I won’t have to face the challenge of figuring out if my clothes are appropriately modest. If I make a blanket rule that I will never ever pick up a phone on Shabbos, I won’t have to decide which situations are actually life-threatening and which are not. Somebody might die because I wouldn’t call 911, but at least I won’t have had to think too much.
So much easier than having to think about complexity and striving for balance – but with such potential for danger.
Rambam’s discussion of the middle road reminds me of another driving metaphor. As a child watching my parents steer, I was perplexed to see how they constantly turned the wheel just to stay straight. As I got older and began driving myself, I realized that even an apparently straight path might have little twists and turns, so that one has to constantly adjust and readjust in order to stay straight. It’s a challenge, but like my mother told me, the trick is to look ahead, to see where you’re going and let your hand-eye coordination figure it out.
We actually have pretty good instincts, if we can learn to trust them.
No one would simply position a steering wheel in the middle and set off with their eyes closed, ignoring the twists and turns, the brick walls and oncoming vehicles ahead. So too, if we want to know how to apply any value in the real world, we have to look ahead to where it will take us, and constantly adjust our direction to make sure we don’t hit anything that might derail us. We have to make sure we take all our values into account, and adjust for where they might intersect.
And so, we have limits. We venerate generosity – but not giving more than a twentieth of our income unless our own sustenance is completely assured (Ketubot 50a). (Important: Consult a halachic authority for specific practical questions about any of these issues!) We add to Shabbos – but not starting before plag hamincha on Friday. (Shulchan Aruch 267:2) We say at the Pesach seder that “anyone who increases telling the story of the Exodus, it is praiseworthy,” and offer anecdotal support for the practice of telling the story at great length, all night even– but we also remember the students who reminded their rabbeim to stop, that they were approaching the end of the sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim road, that it was time to say the morning shema before they crash right into the zman.
The story of the sages in Bnei Brak on Pesach reminds me of how the Gemara in Megillah 7b presents the idea of drinking on Purim. We all know the line “a man is obligated to drink on Purim until he doesn’t know the difference…” – but somehow, many forget to read on. Immediately after mandating celebratory drunkenness, the Gemara tells of Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira, who followed the rule so well and drank so much that Rabbah struck Rabbi Zeira a fatal blow in his drunkenness. Of course, once he sobered up, he was horrified by what he had done and prayed for his colleague’s recovery. Rabbi Zeira did indeed recover, and the next year, Rabbah suggested getting together again. Rabbi Zeira responded, “Not every time does a miracle happen!”
The Ran quotes Rabbenu Ephraim’s read of this Gemara as actually presenting a machloket: one view was that a person should drink to excess, and the anecdote represents the Gemara’s rejection of that view. The story of Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira is a cautionary tale, and the final psak, according to Rabbenu Ephraim, is that one should not drink to excess on Purim, because of the dangers inherent in going too far.
We have to use our own good judgment; we can’t just set ourselves on a particular path and expect a miracle to save us.
So perhaps the Bnei Brak anecdote is a cautionary tale as well. We read in the Haggadah that the more we engage in telling the story of the Exodus, the better – and immediately follow that with a story of five sages who ostensibly did that, and ran up against a conflict with another responsibility. It’s great to do more, and maybe more and more – but not more. There are limits.
And sometimes, we need to be willing to listen to someone else about those limits. Sometimes, on the road of life, drivers need passengers. We need other people around us, even if they are the students and we the teachers, who will notice if we are getting so caught up in following one path that we might miss an important turn.
In the case of drinking on Purim, the Rema rules that “One who does a little and one who does a lot, it is the same – only that one should direct his heart to Heaven.” What kind of halachic ruling is this? Isn’t the Rema supposed to tell us what to do? Isn’t a book of practical halacha supposed to make everything easy for me, so I know what to do and don’t have to think? Of course not. It’s easy to follow blindly, to the end – but impossible to justify. Living a Torah life requires thought; it requires accepting the challenge of sometimes making a judgment call. More is better – but how much more? The only way to know – on Purim, at the seder, or any time – is to set our hearts on a course towards Heaven, and open our eyes to steer our way there.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.