When the Pendulum Stops

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26 Feb 2020

As Purim approaches, the words “v’hahafoch hu” ring through the air. Purim is a celebration of the complete overturning of danger to our people: what was up, went down; what was down, went up.

Some problems can really only be solved that way, by completely undoing the status quo and remaking our reality at the opposite extreme.

Other problems, though, require more nuance in their solutions. A shift, or a balance, but not necessarily an upheaval. Because sometimes there’s value even within a situation that’s not perfect, and if we go too far to the opposite extreme, we risk losing the good. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as they say – and finding ourselves with a whole new set of problems.

But too often, that’s exactly what we do. Too often, at the first sign of a pendulum swinging a little too far in one direction, we get nervous and shove it away, hard – so hard that it goes all the way to the opposite extreme, with such momentum that one imagines it will either get lodged there permanently or bounce all the way back to the first extreme.

X is my favorite thinker… but now X said something I disagree with; down with X!

Kids need more supervision… yikes, stop helicoptering and let your kids roam free!

Teachers are experts who share their knowledge with students… stop imposing on students and just facilitate as they learn how and what they want!

So many pendulums these days are swinging so hard and so fast.

As Purim is approaching, take the example of communal oscillations regarding the mitzvah of mishloach manot.

In recent years, as more and more people began preparing expensive and/or time-consuming mishloach manot, the trend in some communities got so extreme that people fought back against the pressure by calling for an end to the whole thing. I’ve heard numerous pleas, from rabbis and laypeople, for a return to the two-foods-one-person thing, along with reminders that “it is better for a person to increase matanot la’evyonim (gifts to the poor) than to increase his seudah (festive meal) and sending manot to his friends” (Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchos Megillah 2:17).

Who am I to argue? And I don’t argue. I hear people talking through ideas and can’t help wondering whether they think there’s a se’if in the Shulchan Aruch requiring themes for Purim costumes and mishloach manot. When going fancy or expensive becomes an expectation, there is definite cause for concern and for speaking up.

At the same time, in the rush to counter one extreme by hurrying the other way, we risk losing sight of the real basic mitzvah element. Among the calls to tone things down, more than one has included the proclamation, “I’m not doing mishloach manot this year!” Surely no one really means that; surely what they mean is “I’m not making a thing about mishoach manot, and will just do enough to fulfill my obligation.” But isn’t it weird when, in our zeal to avoid letting our performance of the mitzvah get out of hand, we end up making such a bold statement implying rejection of the mitzvah itself? As if we’ve allowed ourselves to accept the idea that mishloach manot = themes and expense, and therefore must accept all or nothing.

And even assuming no one really means they’re going to neglect the mitzvah entirely, we might lose out on another line in Rambam’s description: “anyone who increases sending to friends is meshubach, praiseworthy” (ibid. 15).

How can that be? How can Rambam say both that it’s good to send extra mishloach manot and that one should spend more on matanot la’evyonim than on mishloach manot?

He can say that because there is such a thing as balance. We are not limited to extremes; few things in life are all or nothing. We don’t have to shove the pendulum all the way towards matanot la’evyonim, only to have it ricochet back when people realize the danger of losing out at the other end.

That ricochet has begun to make itself felt, too. After years of reading emotional accounts of those feeling overly pressured by mishloach manot trends, of adults pushing beyond their means and of kids feeling depressed because their families couldn’t afford to keep up, equally emotional accounts have begun in the other direction. Like this Facebook post from last year, quoted with permission (and slight editing):

When I was a kid…I was the one who didn’t get mishloach manot. … The reason for mishloach manot is to increase friendship… I decided once I was an adult to make sure no one is forgotten… And then I hear that more and more people are scaling back. … And it’s shouted from the rooftops as if that’s something to emulate. And more and more are. Becoming these ‘tzadikim’ who have their priorities straight…. And I cry for all the people who will never get a sweet morsel at their door…

I, too, worry that all the calls to return to the minimum will go too far, that in our zeal to stop making people feel they must give more, we will make them feel it’s wrong to give more – that in our concern for embarrassing people who can’t give more, we will embarrass those who can and who could create joy for themselves and others by doing so, who would be meshubach for doing so.

If we could just grab that pendulum and hold it a bit steadier, we might find that we can give matanot la’evyonim and offer our friends cake, too (see what I did there?) – and we can each figure out for ourselves, with the Rambam’s wisely nuanced guidance, where precisely our individual balance should fall.

And if we see trends moving towards one extreme – we can gently remind each other of the benefits at the other end alongside the benefits at the first, and each navigate our way towards something in the middle.

To be fair, Rambam does famously advocate countering one extreme by moving towards the opposite extreme. If one is overly stingy, for instance, Rambam advises putting in the effort to be overly generous (e.g. Shemoneh Perakim Chapter 4). But this advice is, for one thing, temporary. Rambam’s stated goal at the outset is for each person to find a balance; it’s a calculated push of the pendulum, just hard enough that it will settle in the middle but not so that it either gets stuck at the other end or simply swings right back to the first extreme. And for another thing, Rambam offers this bit of wisely nuanced guidance in the realm of personal development – not communal declarations.

To take an example from another upcoming holiday with a far-swinging pendulum: I might know myself well enough to know I have to counter my stress over Pesach cleaning by reminding myself that “dirt is not chametz” – but overemphasize the point to the world at large, without any sort of detail or balance, and I might unwittingly give the impression that small details don’t matter at all, when in fact tiny amounts of chametz are taken quite seriously in the laws of Pesach. We do care about a mashehu, even a miniscule amount, when it comes to chametz, and we need to pay attention to balancing that extreme concern against an extreme lack of (halachic) concern for dirt.

A complete, extreme flip was necessary against the threat of Haman’s decree, and when it comes to Pesach, we will bask in another 180-degree change, from our past as slaves to our present and future as free men and women.

But most issues in our daily lives don’t require that we swing the pendulum quite so fast and wide, overturning everything at one end for the sake of the greener grass at the other. (How many metaphors can I mix in one article?) More often, we just need a bit of wisely nuanced thought and a gentle push to restore basic equilibrium, maintaining the benefits and facing the challenges inherent at both ends.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.