This week’s Torah portion juxtaposes what may be construed as the biblical version of unbridled hedonism (sotah) with sanctimonious asceticism (nazir). The implication would seem to be there’s virtue in avoiding extremes. As the (Jerusalem) Talmud puts it, our lives follow a “narrow path. One side is fire and the other side is ice. Therefore, adhere to the middle of the road.” This advice sounds practical and sensible, but it is unsatisfying when we are in need of inspiration. Adventure is the spice of life.
“The middle of the road,” the kotzker rebbe famously declared, “is for horses.” Anyone who lacks a bit of fire and ice in life is probably missing out. Is there a way to claim the thrill of heedless devotion without sacrificing the benefits of prudence?
The Talmud entertains the case of a drunk who commits to becoming an ascetic. The verdict is that the commitment is invalid. From Maimonides we learn that the vow likewise doesn’t stick when the individual seeks to alleviate the burden of being depressed, angry or grieving. It comes down to one’s state of mind. Clarity of purpose is a prerequisite for life on the edge. Adventure, spiritual and otherwise, isn’t a sound choice for distracted minds and clouded emotions.