Rabbinic Reflections: Two rights make a loop

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“Two wrongs do not make a right.” This bit of moral advice often goes unheeded, especially when tensions are high. Where the advice becomes a challenge or even falls flat is when one wrong does not seem so wrong, maybe even is a right.

Recently, I learned about an even trickier two-some; polarities thinking recognizes that more often we have two rights, or really two goods, in opposition to each other. Faced with two opposing goods, we also have to choose how to act. The results of our choices in a polarity are fascinating.

A great example of a polarity is the tension we, as humans, feel around taking care of ourselves and taking care of others. The ancient sage Hillel put it this way: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirke Avot 1:14).

It is important to take care of ourselves, to make sure we have what we need to be in the world. It is also important to be there for others and to be in the community. Either one without the other puts us in negative spaces: selfishness and alienation or self-effacing and burned out. We can fix the negative by engaging in the positive from the other good. The process ends up looking like an infinity loop (see image above).

This month, I am struck by how being lighthearted and being grave form a polarity. After all, today is the big game: a time for good food, good company, great commercials, and hopefully a great sporting match. Mardi Gras, for those who celebrate, is also around the corner. The Jewish calendar, if not for a leap year, would have us celebrate Purim, the holiday of drawing lots in commemoration of the story of Esther. The Hebrew month of Adar, which has just begun, is a time of joy. The rabbis tell us “One who enters Adar, increases their joy.” We need moments to be carefree, happy, celebratory, or flat-out silly.

On the other hand, the world and life demand serious attention. We must also be conscientious and determined to address real problems near and far. The temptation is often to focus deeply on one or the other, to work hard and to play hard. I find that I end up spending lots of time in the negative space when doing both so deeply.

I was struck, though, by an interview of Rachel Goldberg whose son Hersch Goldberg-Polin is being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza. She speaks of manufacturing joy amidst her grief, fear, and anger. She recognizes that her focus on doing everything she can do to bring her son home along with the other hostages could take away her humanity, so every day she does something, even just dreaming about a future happy occasion, to experience or to taste joy. It is what helps her keep going. Her manufacturing of joy is the act of pulling up from the negative, down space of being too serious.

The trick of polarities thinking, to my mind, is to make the loop less of a constant pulling up from the low points and more of a set of paddles keeping the ball up in the air and playing to the best parts of ourselves. We need to be joyous; we need to be serious; we need to be lighthearted; we need to be grave; and we need to be able when life is not pulling us to one specific side to go back and forth. This time of year can be cold and dreary, let’s do the hard work to get through to spring and remember to manufacture joy along the way. Many of our traditions, religious and secular, build that in for us; make the most of it.

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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