Sinai Synagogue, Wednesday AM, October 9, 2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Let me ask you this – if you were one of those fabulously wealthy people who kept an animal refuge on your estate and someone offered to give you a special animal, and you could only choose one of either a unicorn or a rhinoceros, which one would you choose? I think most people would choose the unicorn, don’t you? I mean, unicorns are beautiful and gentle. They have magical powers. They are radiantly white with a perfect shimmering horn and a golden tail. People write fables about unicorns and make icons out of unicorns. Unicorns are perfect. A rhino is a perversity to unicornism – it has a single horn like the unicorn but it is short and stumpy. It is ungainly, short legged, squat. They look smelly too. Maybe they aren’t but they look like they are quite odiferous. A rhinoceros is very imperfect.
There is actually only one advantage that the rhinoceros has over the unicorn, especially in this scenario where you, fabulously rich person with an animal refuge in your backyard, are offered to choose one or the other: Unicorns don’t exist. They are make believe. Rhinoceroses are real and powerful and formidable.
Adam Gopnik in a wonderful little book called A Thousand Small Sanities, states “Most political visions are unicorns, perfect imaginary creatures we chase and will never find.” His book is about the strength and success of the liberal political tradition. Liberalism is a rhinoceros, which is hard to look at, hard to love but a completely successful animal.
The point he makes about politics can be made about many things in our lives. We have ideals of what a perfect life, a perfect job, a perfect home, a perfect family should constitute. But such perfection does not exist. Life plans that take numerous detours; family relations can be messy but loving and loyal; homes that keep us warm in winter and dry in summer but don’t have a breakfast nook or a walk in closet, are not perfect but they are real, and are good enough. Yet we are seduced by the idea of perfection.
The idea of perfection as something unattainable is offered by Peter Fleck, a Unitarian minister, in his book The Blessings of Imperfection as a way to interpret why Moses was denied entry into the Promised Land. “That incident always puzzled me. There was Moses, laboring day after day, year after year first to get his people out of Egypt, then to lead them on their long pilgrimage through the desert…acting all the time as an intermediary…between a difficult God and a difficult people, fulfilling a job for which he had not volunteered – unselfishly , devotedly , religiously. And then he slips us just once…And –bingo- he is punished with a an apparently cruel punishment: he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land…but one day it dawned upon me that…what appeared to be a cruel punishment was in reality a gracious blessing in disguise. For the Lord gave Moses a view of the promised land from afar: how beautiful the hills, how green the valleys, how incredibly green. It was perfect – as perfect as only the idea, the vision of something can be. Moses was blessed for the Lord saved him from witnessing the realization of that vision which was to be but a shadow of the beauty he had seen.” The punishment of not entering the Land, says Fleck, was in fact a blessing – God buried Moses with the vision of the Promised Land’s perfection in his imagination.
I think this is why some Jews today have turned away from Zionism, even calling for the end of the Jewish state, God forbid. Zionism in some of its manifestations, was that vision of a perfect Promised Land – a restoration of the Jewish people in their homeland, the resurgence and renewal of the Jewish people, living in harmony with nature, its neighbors, creating a true democratic republic founded on the best of Jewish and human values. And then Israel turned out to be a real place – with corruption, political oppression, warfare, religious hypocrisy, spousal abuse, child abuse, impoverishment, cruelty and internecine baseless Jewish hatred. And Jews look at that and say, “Who needs this? It’s so typical of all the other nations in the world, it’s inferior to the ideal.” And they don’t realize that the only thing that is perfect is the unicorn – that doesn’t exist.
But that which is imperfect can be mended.
Look even God does not expect perfection. We all know the old joke, Feinstein brings a pair of pants to Yankel the tailor to be altered. A week later, Yankel says it will be another week. Then a third week. Finally the pants are ready and Feinstein says, “Yankel, 3 weeks? It took God only 7 days to make the world!” “Ah,” says Yankel. “But look at this pair of pants, and look at the world!”.
For five days God creates something essential in the world, and at the conclusion of each day God assesses God’s own handiwork and says, Ki tov – it’s good. Not it’s perfect, but it’s good. Only on the last day does God offer a more substantially positive assessment and even then it is “tov meod” – very good.
The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew, saw a deeper meaning in the determination that the world God created was simply ‘good’ and not perfect. “SheHakol asher nivra tzarikh tikkun” Everything that God created requires repair. God intentionally created a world that was incomplete, yet had potential, in order to motivate God’s beloved human creature to become a partner in the creative process. He based this view on a midrash that stated everything that came into being during the six days of creation requires improvement, God created wheat but human beings need to turn it into bread, God created mustard seed but humans must make it palatable. (Tiferet Yisrael, 69)
Even more significant is the conclusion that we draw from this interpretation -- there is never an end to the project of repair. For the fixers themselves are certainly not perfect. We are flawed creators. Our attempts at completing the tikkun, the repair, will need further repair and so on and so on.
Let’s use the example in the midrash – once upon a time humans figured out how to create bread from ground wheat, water and natural yeast. Humans later developed a more controlled bread making process by using starter dough. And then with the industrial revolution came Wonderbread! Which extracted all the healthy nutrients but added back vitamins via chemicals so the bread could be enriched! And today nobody eats Wonderbread, I hope, because it has almost no nutritional value, instead we have natural breads that are far more nutritional. But so many people today are gluten intolerant that some nutritionists insist that the problem could be solved if people simply ate sour dough breads that ferment using starter dough. So today after thousands of years of trial and error we are told we should go back to making bread the way the Egyptians figured out 5000 years ago.
Trial and error. You fix something and it works until it doesn’t and then you fix it again. That’s why the world God created was simply ‘good’. That’s what the Maharal meant when he said, “Everything that God created requires repair and improvement.” Because what the world requires is a continuous system of repair. There is no end to fixing, and mending, and patching up.
Correcting and botching the fix is as essential as stabilizing the repair in the first place. Lewis Thomas the biologist and author wrote in The Medusa and The Snail, “The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music…we are built for mistakes, coded for error. We learn, as we say by trial and error… Why not ‘trial and rightness” or trial and triumph?... Because (trial and error) in real life is the way it is done”. Error is part of the system – the only constant is the fixing. The only constant is constant repair. In the words of Samuel Becket, “Try again, Fail again, Fail better”.
That is the point that Adam Gopnick wishes to make about Liberalism in his book A Thousand Small Sanities: “Liberalism accepts imperfection as a fact of existence. Some imperfection can be remedied. Many can’t. Everything has them…. Liberalism’s task is not to imagine the perfect society and drive us toward it but to point out what’s cruel in the society we have now and fix it if we possibly can. An acceptance of fallibility and, with it, an openly avowed skepticism of authority – these are core liberal emotions…”
Reading Gopnik’s book it dawned on me the answer to the question that many have asked, especially politically conservative Jews, “Why are so many Jews liberal in their politics?” It is a question that ate into the kishkes of Jewish conservatives like Norman Podhoretz and Dennis Prager. Depending on one’s politics the old adage that Jews live like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans (or replace with any other urban minority) was either a conundrum or a point of pride. But Gopnik’s description of Liberalism seems to offer a response: “An acceptance of fallibility and, with it, an openly avowed skepticism of authority – these are core liberal emotions” These are in our Jewish DNA as well.
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, our protagonist from Rosh HaShanah who believed that stories were what mattered, taught “If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone should say to you that the Messiah has come, stay and complete the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah.” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan, 31b). Let your skeptical nature prevail and get the work at hand done first.
And Rabbi Tarfon used to say: It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it. You are never free to desist from it because it will never be completed. There is no actual completion of the task but there is also no consummation of the effort to fix the predicament. We must constantly work to repair the flaws and glitches that we see around us and also within us.
Allow me to quote a wise Jewish preacher – okay it’s me – I shared this last year on Yom Kippur – that the concept of Tikun Olam as created by the Kabbalists of Sfat based on the Creation myth of Rabbi Isaac Luria taught that the responsibility to heal and fix and repair is a human one, and our actions could not only heal the world but God as well. The elaborate Lurianic explanation for the how the world came into being gave human beings agency to perfect the world. Joseph Dan, one of the greatest scholars of kabbalah called this concept of tikkun “the most powerful idea ever presented in Jewish thought”. It influenced almost all subsequent Jewish thinking.
Tikun and Teshuvah go hand in hand because they are both about repair and mending. Even the kabbalists whose vision of repair was on a cosmic scale, understood that the foundation rested on individual change. I need to work on my own weaknesses and deficiencies and repair what I can. And next year there will be new shortcomings to work on or perhaps even the same old ones, but I keep plugging away, because perfection is not the goal of teshuvah, constant repair is the goal.
Regarding this Rabbi Salanter taught “When we are improving and refining ourselves we are in concert with the Divine plan, fulfilling our purpose for existing in this world…(Ohr Yisrael 38)
Our purpose is to be consistently and habitually working on amelioration and improvement – to the world and to ourselves.
We see even in the writings of Maimonides on Teshuvah an awareness that there are different ways of doing teshuvah and perfect teshuvah may not be attainable or even desirable. What do I mean?
In the opening of Moses Maimonides’ Hilchot Teshuvah, one of the most important and widely studied Jewish guides on repentance, he points out:
What is perfect teshuvah ? A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned when he has the potential to commit [the sin again], and, nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it because of his teshuvah alone and not because of fear or a lack of strength.
For example, a person engaged in illicit sexual relations with a woman. Afterwards, they met in privacy, in the same country, while his love for her and physical power still persisted, and nevertheless, he abstained and did not transgress. This is a complete Ba’al Teshuvah.”
Maimonides teaches this because he bases this rule on a teaching in the Talmud: How is one proved a repentant sinner? Rav Yehudah said: If the object which caused his original transgression comes before him on two occasions, and he keeps away from it. Rav Yehudah indicated: With the same woman, at the same time, in the same place.
But in Maimonides code just 3 laws after telling us that perfect teshuvah is being in that same situation with the same woman and the same lust but refraining from acting on it, he tells his readers: “Among the paths of repentance is for the penitent to: a) constantly call out before God, crying and entreating; b) to perform charity according to his potential; c) to separate himself far from the object of his sin.
Well if you are supposed to separate yourself far from the object of your sin how could you ever be in a situation to do perfect teshuvah? You can’t. Maimonides knows that it would be very dangerous to place oneself in a situation where once before a person fell into transgression just to test one’s resolve. A recovering alcoholic should not stock his home with liquor to remind himself that he has overcome his alcoholism. Maimonides is indicating that in fact while there exists a standard of teshuvah that one could call perfect, in reality there are many levels to doing teshuvah. He outlines some possible paths: a) constantly calling out before God with sincere tears; b) performing acts of charity; c) separating oneself from objects of temptation; d) changing one’s name, which is his way of saying seeing oneself as a changed and different person from the one who sinned; e) to changing one’s behavior in its entirety to the good; and f) leaving one’s place to start over again.
In the Talmud there is even an opinion that one who commits an act of transgression and is ashamed of it, all of his transgressions are forgiven. Perfect teshuvah is a fantasy - what is attainable is the constant process of working on teshuvah, working on self repair, working on self improvement.
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, a mystic who lived in Prague and Sfat in the 16th century, wrote of his father that every night before he would retire he would list the deeds he performed that day. Then he would sit alone and contemplate them. He would scrutinize the action he performed not only that day but all the days of his life..
The Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev , before he would go to bed would make a list of all the improper deeds he did during the day. He would read them aloud, saying “Today Levi Yitzhak did such and such. Tomorrow Levi Yitzhak will not do such and such.” As he would recite the list, over and over again, he would be overwhelmed with remorse and contrition and would begin to cry. Only when his tears had wiped the paper clean of ink would Levi Yitzhak retire for the night.
The message of this Hasidic tale is that the process of doing teshuvah is constant and continuous.
This is why we come back to Yom Kippur year after year. It’s not that we expect to be perfect, we never are, all we hope is to be able to do is correct our current imperfections. And when new ones arise we will be summoned to deal with those. On Yom Kippur we acknowledge our human fallibility and our goal should be to internalize the repeated process of mending and fixing.
Leonard Cohen memorably sang “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in.”
Sometimes our imperfections provide illumination and insight. Sometimes they enlighten us to what we need to mend in order to gain wholeness.
Rabbi Israel Salanter learned the meaning of teshuvah one late evening as he walked by a shoe repair shop. Inside he heard the shoemaker sighing as the light of day ebbed away: “As long as there is still light, I can still mend.”
Yom Kippur reminds us that there is always light. Let use it and appreciate the gift of mending.