The wise king Solomon warned us “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you ruin yourself?” Ecclesiastes 7:16 What does this mean and why should we think about it when making resolutions for the New Year?
“overly righteous”: The Baal Shem Tov taught “You should not be overly strict in any observance. Excessive strictness is the advice of the Yetzer HaRa. It makes a person fear that he has not done things just right; and so brings him into depression- the greatest obstacle to serving God.” It is not a mitsvah or a sin to seek self-perfection; but it is a sin to judge others for not seeking to be or not being perfect. As our sages say Our rabbis taught: There are three whose life is no life; the overly compassionate, the hot-tempered, and the overly fastidious (perfectionist critics) Pesachim 113b
Rabbi Nachman taught “It is impossible for a mortal human being to fulfill his duties perfectly. You should not be overly strict and stringent.” If only those who push the Halakah always toward ‘stricter is better’ would learn from these two statements.
The Al hait prayer originally had 6 verses and still does in Sephardic and Yemenite rites. It then grew to: 22 in Italian, and 44 in Ashkenazi rites. Al hait was originally recited once in each of the 5 services of Yom Kippur, and then doubled to 10. This is an example of seeking to be overly righteous and pious. A longer service is not better than a shorter service; just as eating or drinking more is not better than eating or drinking less.
‘make yourself too wise by thinking’; more is always better. For example: Avinu Malkaynu started with 7 verses and now has 44 verses. The prayer book of Rabbi Amram Gaon (9th century) had 25 verses. Today the Yemenites have 27 verses, the Sephardic tradition has 29 verses, among the Mizrahim the Syrian tradition has 31 verses, the Ashkenazic has 38 verses, the Polish tradition has 44. and the Greeks have the most wisdom with 58 verses.
‘ruin yourself’: The Torah (Deuteronomy 4:2 and Deuteronomy 13:1) says” Do not add to and do not subtract from” God’s commandments. This is an excellent principle. Since the generations are always changing, some change is always needed, but we are commanded to maintain the original balance. Thus, “do not add to” unless you also subtract from, and “do not subtract from” unless you also add to, is the answer.
Unfortunately, since the destruction of Jerusalem, most rabbis have continually added prohibitions and restrictions and rarely permitted subtracting. The book of Proverbs (4:27) also advises us, “Do not swerve to the right (always forbidding) or to the left (always permitting)”. Maintain the original balance is excellent advice.
In our own life we must also avoid excessive criticism of others as well as of ourselves.