In his comments on the Torah portion of Noach (VeHigadeta, Bereshit pp. 137 – 140), R. Yaakov Galinsky wonders about the verse (Bereshit 9:20), “And Noah, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard.” As Rashi points out ad locum, the Sages opined that, after leaving the ark that saved him and his family as well as other creatures, Noah should have been busy with other planting first. At first, Noah is referred to as a “purely righteous man” (Bereshit 6:9) and now as simply a “man of the earth.”
Why, wonders R. Galinsky, do the Sages treat Noah as having simply chosen to become inebriated? Why not say that his intentions were holy, that he wished to prepare wine for Kiddush?
In answer, R. Galinsky opines, Noah certainly could have been understood to have had the noble intention of stringently seeking to have wine for Kiddush, and no other intention. Nevertheless, if the entire world is lying destroyed before you, it is not the time to think about stringencies. One should be thinking of planting wheat to be able to make bread to assuage everyone’s hunger! One could then rather be lenient and make Kiddush on the loaves of bread!
Similarly, R. Galinsky notes, we have a precept to kindle lights on Chanukah, including a proposed stringency, widely practiced, of each member of a given household kindling a light for each day of the Chanukah holiday. Yet, R. Avraham Gombiner (c. 1635 – 1682), known by the name of his work Magen Avraham, rules (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 671:1) that one who has enough candles to perform the above stringency, but his neighbor does not have any, must provide his neighbor with candles, whereby each would only light one candle on each day, thereby foregoing this stringency.
Likewise, R. Galinsky points out that, although there have been times when entire cities populated by many Jews could not afford more than one lulav, etrog, hadasim and aravot for the holiday of Sukkot, it is definitely a noble stringency for one who has the means to buy for himself before Sukkot his own lulav, etrog, hadasim and aravot (see Babylonian Talmud, Sukka 38a). However, again, the Magen Avraham rules (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 658:12) that if one has his own while a neighboring city could not afford them, he should give the neighboring city his lulav, etrog, hadasim and aravot so that they could use it as a communal set to for the entire city’s inhabitants to perform this precept and he should forego his stringency to be able to perform the precept on the communal set owned by his city.
R. Galinsky concludes with a conversation he once had with the famous Chazon Ish. The Chazon Ish said he does not perform stringencies. Rather, he is stringent about performing the halakha. R. Galinsky inquired as to the difference. The venerable sage responded, “If the halakha instructs [us] to be stringent, this is the halakha. When the halakha instructs that it is possible to be lenient and one wishes to be stringent, it is his right. However, he should know that the halakha does not demand this, and, consequently, he should weigh and examine if this stringency does not harm another.” The Chazon Ish added an anecdote regarding a very wealthy neighbor. That neighbor happened to have another neighbor who was extremely impoverished. “G-d has blessed you with great wealth; perhaps you could share some of it with him?” the Chazon Ish asked the wealthy man. The wealthy man’s response was that every Purim there is a precept to provide for the impoverished. Such a person is not easy to find, but as long as he knows that his neighbor is such an impoverished individual, this wealthy man has no difficulty in fulfilling this precept in its fullest sense. However, this opportunity would be ruined if he assisted his neighbor by alleviating his impoverished state! This, the Chazon Ish pointed out, is an example of performing stringencies, as opposed to being stringent in performing the halakha.
Stringencies in execution of Jewish law and practices may be noble in and of themselves – as long as one is mindful of priorities. If, however, one smugly performs stringencies while others around him are allowed to suffer or while being insensitive to other important issues, one is exercising mixed up priorities. And, as R. Galinsky cites, Jewish law and its decisors like the Magen Avraham and Chazon Ish do not condone mixed up priorities, just as our Sages do not condone the behavior of Noah after exiting the ark. Thoughtless performance of stringencies does not reflect true devotion to G-d. True devotion to G-d is only reflected in meticulous fulfillment of Torah law along with thoughtful consideration of priorities.