Parshat Mishpatim: Why we tend to go to extremes
Based on the writings of Rav Natan of Breslov
Shemot 24:11: God didn’t hurt the leaders of Israel. They gazed at the Divine and ate and drank.
In Likutey Halachot, Rav Natan explains that this verse is hinting at one of the biggest challenges facing us, namely that we tend to go to extremes.
Spiritually-speaking, this can happen when we have a ‘Divine revelation’ of some sort and we suddenly realize that Hashem truly is running the world. Just like the elders who literally came face-to-face with God, we experience some sort of miracle or salvation – and it literally drive us crazy.
Rav Natan writes that there is a ‘danger of excessive fervor for the Divine’.
I think I’m Moshiach!
When this happens, we can start to believe that we are the Baal Shem Tov, or Moshe Rabbenu, or perhaps the Moshiach. Instead of getting our kids ready for school, we spend hours reciting our morning prayers, or we stop eating in our (observant….) family members’ homes, because they don’t keep the same incredibly strict level of kashrus we’ve now take upon ourselves….
This all sounds so good, so positive, but Rav Natan warns us that:
“Unbounded fervor [for God] is a fundamental obstacle to spiritual progress”.
He tells us that too many of us have an ‘all or nothing’ attitude to serving Hashem, that usually leads us further away from true devotion, once we realize just how difficult it is to really serve Hashem properly.
It’s when people get so stressed-out by Pesach cleaning, and so worried that they aren’t doing it ‘right’, that they just give up on the whole idea and go and book themselves into a hotel for the holiday.
As Rav Natan tells us, a person: “believes that he must engage in extreme, ‘pious’ activity…And Since he is unable to do all this, he therefore does nothing at all – even that which he actually could do.”
This is the mindset that tells a person:
if you can’t do it all 100% perfectly, don’t even bother.
Don’t bother to not drive on Shabbat, if you’re still going to smoke cigarettes or watch TV. Don’t bother to stop eating unkosher meat, if you’re still going to eat ‘vegetarian’ in traif restaurants. Don’t bother trying to do hitbodedut if you can’t manage a whole hour every single day…
But Rav Natan comes to warn us away from this type of thinking. He tells us: “Just because someone can’t do a whole mitzvah, does that mean he shouldn’t at least do part of it?!”
The gap between where we are, and where we want to be
The 70 elders came face-to-face with Hashem – they saw very clearly the huge gap between who they were and how they were serving God, currently, and how things could be if they were ‘perfect’ – and they felt their lack so keenly, they immediately fell back into the ‘materialistic’ pursuits of eating and drinking.
How often do we do the same? We try so hard to be good, to be ‘perfect’, but then we have one set-back, one failure, and all too often, we completely give up. I watched one Netflix movie?! I smoked one cigarette?! I said one horrible thing to my friend?!
That’s it! Give up! I can’t do this ‘frum Jew’ thing, it’s just not me, it’s too hard, I’ll never be able to get there, or to give God what He really wants.
But Rav Natan says: this is not the way! He continues:
“Anyone who yearns to return to God should know that no good deed is lost. Even if he’s not yet completely fixed himself, nothing is lost from the Heavenly account, not even the smallest mitzvah that he does…. In the end, he will merit to do complete teshuva and to return to God. There is no despair in the world at all”