Yakov Saacks

Extreme living is not living


Many people I speak to love this time of the year. The climate is not too hot or humid, and neither is it too cold and unpleasant. In fact, the weather of late has been perfect. While it is true there are those who love the extreme climate of intense heat or cold, I would think that it is nowhere near the majority. You see people, for the most part, appreciate the elements somewhere closer to the middle of the thermometer.

This is not only true of weather, but also of most things. Even politics and religious attitudes need to have a modicum of thought and common sense.


Let’s take politics first. An extremist on the right or on the left leaves us/me with a raised eyebrow. Political extremes are simply an unhealthy way to be. As a Jewish person, I am unnerved by someone who is extreme, as it usually spells trouble for the Jews. I also find that people who are extreme regarding politics have no life or extracurricular activities. It overtakes the individual to the point where friendships come secondary to their opinion. It is like a political cancer has taken over the mind. It is not supposed to be like this.


Same with religion. There is a reason why the Torah has to stipulate that to save a life we are allowed to violate Jewish law, even though for you and me it is obvious that life is the most precious thing that we possess. The Torah however, needs to spell it out as God knows that there are those who are so extreme that they will not eat on Yom Kippur even if it means that they could perish.

Maimonides in his magnum opus only advocates an extreme position if it is to rid oneself of negative behavior like alcoholism, etc. For the most part, Maimonides takes great pains to emphasize that the middle path to serving God and mankind is the proper one: “Such people may then return to the middle path, which is the proper one, and continue in it for the rest of their lives.”


Recently the Torah gave us two scenarios of extremes and condemned both of them. A couple of weeks ago, we studied the Torah portion all about the flood. There it states clearly that God brought a flood upon the masses because no one showed any respect for the other. Life was all about living a selfish and greedy existence. There was no consideration of someone else’s space, property, or belongings. As the Torah testifies, the people took what they wanted when they wanted and how they wanted. There was a total disregard for morality, honesty, decency and integrity. Rape and pillage were so common that God ultimately decided that this is not a world He wants to be king over.

A little further on in the same portion, the Torah discusses that all mankind lived together in one place and the Torah further testifies that mankind had but one language and wished to build the Tower of Babel. God was displeased and scattered them all over the region and altered their dilalects. Have you ever asked yourself what was so bad about people living together and all speaking the same tongue?  What is the Torah really telling us?


The answer is a fascinating one. The generation of the flood focused on the self, the individual and not on the community or family. The generation of Babel on the other hand were the polar opposite but also to an extreme. The Babelites strictly focused on community and they had complete disdain for the individual. They had no regard for differing or dissenting opinions. If someone did not agree, then they were classified as the enemy of the state. The philosophy was such, that you are either with us or against us – there is no middle ground. God decided then that I have no interest in being involved with this oppressive communistic approach either.

So while the flood victims died because of extreme negative behavior, the generation of Babel were also disbursed for the same reason, extreme negative behavior. What God was looking for was a hybrid, where both the individual and the community matter.

Rabbi Hillel said it best. If I am not for myself, then who will be for me. If I am only for myself then what am I?

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About the Author
Rabbi Yakov Saacks is the founder and director of The Chai Center, Dix Hills, NY. The Chai Center has been nicknamed by some as New York's most Unorthodox Orthodox Center.