Pull back from extremes and embrace the golden mean

Rabbi Adam Bellows

By Rabbi Adam Bellows

Once upon a time, there was a young boy who was always looking forward to what was next. If he was home, he wished he was at school the next day. If he was at school, he wished he was  at home already. If he was eating dinner, he wished he was done. Once he finished, he couldn’t wait until the next meal. 

One day, this boy looked down while walking in the forest and spotted something shiny. Hidden among the leaves was a golden apple. As he admired it, he wished he was home already so he could show his mother. With a poof, he was instantly home, hours later, showing his mother the apple. 

He realized this apple was magical and could take him to any future point he desired. He wished it was the next day while holding it and, poof, there he stood at school. Yet he was so bored at school, he wished it was summer. Poof. Summer. Then he got too hot and wished it was winter. You guessed it. Poof. Winter. 

He continued wishing for the future until he realized 80 years had passed in just a few hours. He was an old man. And he realized he had missed everything in his life because he wasn’t satisfied with any of it. He closed his eyes and wished harder than he ever had to return to his youth, vowing to be content. Poof. The golden apple granted his wish. 

For those of us without a golden apple, we may sometimes find ourselves wishing for our future to arrive while ignoring our present.

In this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotecha, God loses patience with the Israelites, who seem never to be content with what they have. God had freed them from bondage in Egypt, yet all they do in the wilderness is complain! In the Book of Numbers Chapter 11, we hear the Israelites’ cries: 

“If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used  to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. Now our bellies are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to! (Num. 11:4-5).”

Wait. Hang on. Did you catch that? There is nothing at all, except manna. You may remember that manna is the magical food that God provided the Israelites so they wouldn’t starve in the desert. In fact, it’s described as tasting pleasant. Twelfth-century commentator Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) described it as tasting of either honey smeared crackers, nuts or a rich cream. 

Perhaps the Israelites should have been content, but no. They complained. And God grew angry. Moses basically says on behalf of God, “You want meat? Oh, you’ll get meat.” God says, you’ll have enough “until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you” (Num. 11:20). God sends a great wind that causes thousands of quail to appear all around the Israelites’ camp. They eagerly gather and eat them. We then read: 

“The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when the anger of the Eternal blazed forth against the people and the Eternal struck the people with a severe plague.” (Num. 11:33)

Why was God so angry? The people wouldn’t be satisfied with what they had. They kept wishing to be elsewhere. Perhaps God felt they were gluttonous, always needing more and more. 

On the other hand, it’s not as if God wants Israelites to be self-denying monks. In his work, the Mishneh Torah, 12th-century commentator Maimonides said that avoiding things like meat, wine or physical intimacy altogether was also unacceptable (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Human Dispositions 3:1). So what’s the solution?

The golden mean. Not to be confused with the golden apple. The golden mean is when we follow the middle road. We don’t stray too far one way or the other. According to 16th-century Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horowitz, the golden mean is where humans want to be, and if someone strays too far in one extreme, they have to make it up by spending time at the other extreme (Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horowitz, Torah Shebikhtav, Chukat, Derekh Chayim).

So this means God wasn’t being sadistic by giving the Israelites all the meat they could ever want, then punishing them when they began eating it. God was bringing them back to the golden mean.

The Israelites were on the extreme end of being ungrateful and focusing too much on their own bellies. In order to return to the golden mean, they had to descend into gluttony for a while until they were sick of the abundance of food.

Only by returning to the golden mean, the middle road, only by experiencing forced feeding, could the Israelites return to a state of contentment. Only then could the Israelites realize what they had. 

Sure, they weren’t in Egypt anymore. Sure, they weren’t eating the finest of foods. But they were eating manna from heaven. They were eating the food of ethereal beings. They were eating freely. They weren’t slaves anymore.

How often do we find ourselves at one extreme end of a spectrum? Maybe we think too much of others and forget ourselves. Maybe we work too hard and forget to stop and relax. Maybe we worry too much about the future and forget to enjoy the present. 

This Shabbat, let’s all find the golden mean. Let’s take a look at our lives and figure out where we are too extreme in one direction. 

This Shabbat, let’s find what we can be grateful for, lest we find ourselves as that young boy in the story: at the end of our lives, without having lived our lives. 

This Shabbat, may we find peace in our lots.

Rabbi Adam Bellows serves United Hebrew Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.