A sore back

Rambam's great rule of always avoiding extremes in life and behavior is the clear rule of law and behavior in Jewish life.

luggage 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
luggage 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As the luggage spilled onto the moving carousel, I looked intently to find the one suitcase that was still missing from our treasured baggage that we had checked in at Los Angeles. Suddenly, I spied the missing bag making its way along the carousel. However, it was wedged between two enormous suitcases that blocked easy access to my luggage. Foolishly living in my more robust past, I wrestled with the three bags, attempting to wrest mine from the moving mess. I stretched out fully and attempted to pull my bag off the carousel, but I was unsuccessful. A kind, young, strong person who noticed my efforts pursued my bag and freed it from its two imposing neighbors and dragged it off the carousel. I thanked him profusely for his help but as I was wheeling my luggage cart out to my waiting taxi I felt a growing twinge in my back. Over the next few days it developed into a more painful ache that slowed down my motions and impinged upon my usual cheerfulness and serenity. The old Yiddish aphorism that no matter what position one who is ill assumes while lying in bed, one remains uncomfortable, undoubtedly refers to backaches and stretched and strained muscles. You will correctly ask what this tale of personal woe and discomfort has to do with an article about Judaism and the Jewish story. Judaism is a religion of moderation and good sense. Rambam's great rule of always avoiding extremes in life and behavior (the two exceptions to this rule being humility and the lack of anger) is the clear rule of law and behavior in Jewish life. Basically, it teaches us not to overreach, not to exert ourselves in a manner beyond our capabilities. One has to have a realistic picture of oneself, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Overreaching can create problems and pain. The Talmud taught us that King Saul overreached himself in his compassion towards Agag, king of Amalek. Mercy and compassion are enormously necessary and positive attributes. But applied wrongly and emotionally in a situation where the greater long-term good demands a stricter attitude and behavior, self-righteous compassion turns into pain and tragedy, both personal and national. The Talmud also speaks against impatience. Hasty decisions, unrealistic actions, almost always result in aches and pains. Be patient in judgment, the rabbis in Avot advised us. Letting my bag spin around the carousel until the two larger bags that compressed it were removed, hopefully by their rightful owners, would have been a wise, reasoned and correct approach. But since impatience, especially at a luggage carousel after a long flight, is contagious, attempting to overreach myself in my impatience produces back pains for which the only real cure is time and patience. Ironic how these things work out, eh? Impatience is what leads to many of the problems that plague our little country. We want things to develop quickly, to have peace now and to settle all matters quickly. This is really an attempt to badly overreach our abilities and misjudge our true situation. We suffer, therefore, from a very aching back. Perhaps we should let our bag go around the luggage carousel a few more times until the other heavy bags are somehow removed. Then it will be much easier for us to retrieve our rightfully owned suitcase. In the religious world, we also suffer from overreaching. We expect the highest standard of religious observance and behavior from our secular and converted brethren immediately. We are not interested in the natural, gradual process that brings people closer to their faith and tradition. Maximalism rules our street and the competition to constantly raise the bar is the watchword on the religious street. But this leads to less and not more, to exclusivity and isolation, to a counter-productive attitude and result. The rabbis taught us in the Talmud, "Attempting to grab too much too soon means that one will eventually grab nothing." Grabbing less and wisely, with patience and a long view of things, is always a better policy. Haste and impatience, overreaching and unrealistic assessments of a situation, always lead to - at the very least - painful backaches. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator. www.rabbiwein.com