As Judaism meets Mother Goose, extremism is no virtue


There are a number of mitzvot associated with the Korban Pesach — the Paschal Lamb sacrifice that was first commanded in Egypt and eaten the night before the Exodus — that apply anytime the Korban Pesach is offered and eaten.

One concerns how it is to be prepared: “Do not eat it raw or [very] cooked in water, but only roasted over fire; its head (on) its legs and (on) its internal organs” (Shmot, Bo, 12:9).

The term translated here as “[very] cooked” appears in the Torah in the oft-called “double language” of “vashel m’vushal,” which indicates a more severe degree of having been cooked than what Mother Goose might call “just right.” In the Sefer Luach Erez, the author suggests the Torah is telling us how a person should conduct oneself when eating: don’t be so impatient that you’ll eat the food raw, but don’t be so lazy that you’ll wait until it’s overcooked before you take it off the fire.

As anyone who roasts meat knows, undercooked is worthless, overcooked is burnt: it has to be “just right.”

The Luach Erez notes that one who follows eating it “only roasted over a fire,” merits (in a homiletical sense) to achieve having “his head on his legs and on his internal organs.” In other words, his head, which governs his thought process and emotions, will have control over his legs and his organs, the sources of his desires.

While this interpretation is certainly not to be understood as the simple understanding of the Torah (the Torah is talking about different parts of the animal that will be eaten), the lesson is compelling. What does it take to get a person not to be an extremist, to come to his senses, and to do what is mandated of him? Answer: Following a middle path.

Eating something roasted – in a manner in which it is “just right” – is a metaphor for doing any activity just right. Of course, such a definition is relative, and people will have different understandings of what is considered the best way. Maimonides spoke of the Golden Mean, not to be extreme in either direction, and his instructions in Hilchot De’ot, when followed, could be extremely helpful.

What is considered extreme?

Heaping stringency on top of stringency is one extreme. Tearing apart the fabric of our society for the sake of liberalism is a different extreme.

Running to a rabbi for every question, putting absolute faith in rabbis at all times, defending rabbis who are fallible humans when their actions prove they are not beyond reproach, is one extreme. Calling rabbis fools or other ad-hominem names, just because you disagree or think they are not fit to have an opinion on a matter, is also an extreme. Dialogue is good. Making it personal is not.

Saying kashrus certification is corrupt and can’t be trusted is one extreme. Saying you can look at ingredients and decide for yourself what is OK is another extreme. Unfortunately, there is a lot more to every commercial food prepared than meets the eye.

Defining modesty in dress, which applies to everyone, though is more often a discussion regarding women, whose acceptable options in society are so much more varied in terms of lengths of sleeves, skirts, slits, shorts, collars, pants, etc., is one extreme because these set-in-stone or objective definitions are different depending on the society and local culture. And, frankly, people can follow all the guidelines and still be immodest. Skin-tight clothes, ten thousand dollar sheitels, hip boots and gaudy fur coats are anything but modest.

Even in spring and summer time, or year-round at the gym, men and women make choices that can either be extreme in one direction (sleeveless — men and women; shirtless —men; really short shorts — men and women; what does the top cover — women), or in the other direction, such as wearing clothes that do not fit the activity at all (such as a suit and tie when playing basketball).

Even Torah learning can be taken to an extreme. One can neglect one’s hygiene, health, or responsibility to provide for a family on account of extreme Torah learning. One can also neglect Torah learning and growth as a Jew altogether, which is the opposite extreme.

Some choose to write off those who practice Judaism differently from their own little box as outside of what they consider mainstream Judaism (the left and the right are very fond of this). This is extremism.

Some choose to push the envelope beyond the very large fence that includes adherence to halakha as defined by the Shulchan Arukh and Maimonides (which have been accepted as the main Codes of Jewish Law) to either go outside the box, or to include stringencies which were never intended. Both of these are also extremism.

Are you familiar with the image of the family around the fireplace, perhaps roasting marshmallows, sitting and enjoying one another’s company? That feeling that things are just perfect, and everything is just right?

That is what it means to roast one’s Korban Pesach to perfection, and to have one’s “head on his legs and on his internal organs,” when sechel (common sense), guided by adherence to a halakhic system, dictates how one controls one’s desires — but also helps make proper choices that are not guided by extremism.

Our challenge is to avoid negatively imposing one hashkafa (Jewish outlook) on our Jewish brethren, who may look at things differently, while encouraging a way of life that is fulfilling and meaningful.

May we be so lucky to achieve such perfection.