Beit Midrash

  • Jewish Laws and Thoughts
  • Serving Hashem, Mitzvot and Repentance
To dedicate this lesson

A Sore Back


Rabbi Berel Wein

Adar 2 5768
As the luggage spilled unto 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 of the carousel but I was unsuccessful in this attempt. A kind, young, strong person who noticed my efforts pursued my bag and freed it from its two imposing neighbors and dragged it off of 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 back aches and stretched and strained muscles. Now you will correctly ask what does this tale of personal woe and discomfort have to do with an article about Judaism and the Jewish story. So, hang on and read the rest of this brilliant piece of writing.

Judaism is a religion of moderation and good sense. The great rule of Rambam 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 that is beyond our capabilities to achieve. One has to have a realistic picture of one ’s self, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Overreaching can create problems and pain. The Talmud taught us that King Saul overreached himself in his compassion towards Agag the 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 more strict type of 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 would be removed by their hopefully rightful owners would have been a wise, reasoned and correct policy. 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 and it will then 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 too grab too much too soon means that one will eventually grab nothing." Grabbing less and wisely with patience and a long view of things always is a better policy. Haste and impatience, overreaching and unrealistic assessments of the situation, always lead to at the very least painful backaches. Our bodies and physical vicissitudes have much to teach us about life in general and how we should conduct ourselves in all of the challenges that constantly face us.
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