The Torah warns us that we should not be overly righteous Haredim. “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? (Ecclesiastes 7:16)
The Gemara relates a good example of a pious, learned, rabbi who tragically ignored this admonition: “Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Ashi was accustomed to say, whenever he knelt in prayer: May the Merciful One save us from the evil inclination.
One day his wife heard him saying this prayer. She thought: After all, it has been several years since he stopped engaging in intercourse with me [saying it was] due to his advanced years. What is the reason that he says this prayer [now], as there [should be] no concern that he will engage in sinful sexual behavior?
One day, while he was studying in his garden, his wife adorned herself and repeatedly walked past him. He said: Who are you? She said: I am Ḥaruta, a well-known prostitute, returning from my day at work.
He propositioned her. She said to him: Give me that pomegranate from the top of the tree as payment. He jumped up, climbed up [the tree], and brought it to her, and they engaged in intercourse.
When he came home, his wife was lighting a fire in the oven. He went and sat inside [the oven]. She said to him: What is this? He said to her: “An incident occurred and I engaged in intercourse with a prostitute.” She said to him: It was I.
But he paid no attention to her, thinking she was merely trying to comfort him, until she gave him signs [that pomegranate] that it was indeed her.
He said to her: I, in any event, intended to transgress [so my sinful intention alone is terrible] The Gemara relates: All the days of his life Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Ashi fasted for the transgression he intended to commit [but was saved by his wife from doing], until he died [of starvation] in his misery. (Kiddushin 81b)
The real sin of Rabbi Hiyya bar Ashi was that instead of showing gratitude for his wife’s kind wisdom and paying more attention to her sexual desires, he foolishly focused solely on himself and his own faults.
Jews should always use wisdom to limit piety as Rabbi Moses Maimonides wrote, “Good deeds are those that are equally balanced between the too much and the too little.”
The desire of many Haredim today to perfect themselves must be self-limited; as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said “Never insist that everything go exactly your way, even in matters spiritual.”
It is easy to condemn the religious excesses we see in other religions; and it is much harder to engage in self-criticism of one’s own religious acts. Even saints can be overly righteous; and thus have their shortcomings. Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin died in a most tragic manner
A Cossack shot him in the leg while he was saying the Shabbat morning prayers. His disciple Rabbi Asher wanted the bullet removed right away but Rabbi Shlomo refused.
He said he would wait until after Shabbat was over, arguing ‘should we forget God the creator of the universe for such a small thing?”
After Shabbat was over they went to a doctor but by then the leg was infected. The infection spread and five days later Rabbi Shlomo died. He was 56.
Perhaps with this in mind Rabbi Mikhal of Zlotchov said: “When the Evil Urge tries to tempt people to sin, it tempts them to become super righteous.”