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Rabbi Seidel Drash | Against Perfectionism

Rabbi Seidel Drash - Rosh Hashanah Day 2 - 5775 (2014)
Against Perfectionism



            Last month, I had a striking conversation with a relative of mine, a young woman from California.  We were chatting at a wedding reception for another relative of ours.  I had met this young woman just a few times when she was much younger; since she lives on the West Coast, I hadn’t seen her in a number of years.  Now she was a college student, and she had some interesting things to say.  She goes to a small liberal arts college in the Midwest somewhere - I’m actually not sure exactly where.  Well, I don’t know where it is located physically, but politically, it turned out I was quite familiar with the lay of the land.  This young relative was feeling oppressed by the incessant anti-Israel rhetoric she was hearing on campus.

            Now, this young woman knows something about Judaism, and she has even attended some sessions (I don’t remember what organization it was that held these sessions) about how to debate the haters of the State of Israel.  But she’d come to feel that what she had been taught was not helping.  The help that her training had given her was all along the lines of: “If they say X about Israel, here’s what you say to counter them.  And if they say Y, here’s what you say in response.”  “But you know, Uncle Ethan”, she said, “I think it might have been better had I been trained in how to foster dialogue, rather than in being a perfect debater.”

            It was a lovely moment, realizing that a little kid had grown up, and was now able to think more nuanced thoughts.  And, as it turns out, there was an article by Yehuda Kurtzer in the Times of Israel last week saying exactly the same thing.  It’s on my bulletin board, if you’re interested.  And I do hope you are interested.  I find myself thinking more than usual about the role of the American Jew vis a vis Israel.  It’s not just about sending money, anymore.  It’s about influencing the way the debate is framed here in America.  If you feel, as I do, that Israel is held to a standard no other country is asked to meet, talk to me.  Maybe there are things we can do to help rectify the imbalance.  I’m not against criticizing Israel, as you know; but something else is going on now, and I feel called to act.

I plan to speak more directly about Israel in a sermon later this year.   But I don’t want to focus on Israel today.  Rather, it’s one particular aspect of this interaction with my young relative - the relative merits of debate, versus dialogue.  I see, in the preference we often have for debate, as opposed to dialogue, a symptom of something much bigger.  I’ll call it: the mistaken drive for perfection.  The illusion that you could be perfectly prepared for a situation; that you could reasonably expect yourself to act in just the right way, that you could be, say, the perfect debater.  On one level, this is an obvious point: we all know that nobody’s perfect.  And yet, this truism “nobody’s perfect” - many of us regularly forget.  Many of us continue to strive overmuch for perfection, and consequently injure ourselves and those around us.

            Some examples:

Let’s say you supervise someone at work, and that subordinate is a perfectionist.  Now, on one level, there’s a lot to be said for a perfectionist worker.  The work you give them is going to get done, and will likely be done well.  Of course, if they’re too much of a perfectionist, it may be a little late, or maybe a lot late, but the work will be the best that worker can do.  What’s not to like?  From the boss’s point of view, maybe nothing.  In fact, the boss, once she’s discovered this worker’s competence, is liable to give the most difficult projects to this able worker.  But there is a cost.

Perfectionists tend to need constant recognition and praise.  Actually, what they tend to need is constant reassurance.  And most supervisors get tired of this. Perfectionists lives can be hell, when too much work is ladled on by a thankful boss.  Hey, perfectionists lives can be hell, even when their workload is reasonable, because they themselves are never satisfied with their work.  They’re not good at patting themselves on the back, because they cannot be sure they’ve really done their absolute best.  Which is why they tend to crave that reassurance.

Here’s another example:  What if it’s your boss who is the perfectionist in the office.  All of us know that perfectionists don’t always make the best bosses.  Now of course it’s all a matter of degree.  You want your boss to hold you to a high standard, just not to an impossible standard.  That kind of boss can make your life hell, and the resulting turnover in personnel is not good for the institution you work for.


            Now before I go farther, I want to emphasize what I just said:  It’s all a matter of degree.  You can be too much of a perfectionist, but you can also be too little of a perfectionist.  And thus let me state clearly that the central message of this drash is not for everyone.  Fact is, some of you would do well to be a little more of a perfectionist, should try to be a little better about tying up loose ends, getting your ducks in a row, responding to all your emails, etc. etc.  But let’s be honest - most of us here today - I’m guessing, probably the majority - err on the other side: we tend, overmuch, towards perfectionism.  And there are many situations in which such an emphasis on perfectionism is not the best approach.

Some more examples:

            Self evaluation.  Now let’s be honest, no-one is especially good at self-evaluation.  That’s why we’ve got these 10 days of Awe to focus on it.  How did we do this year?  It’s hard to say for sure.  So we try to evaluate ourselves the best we can.  However, when it comes to self-evaluation, the perfectionist has a built-in problem.  The perfectionist needs that self-evaluation to be perfect.  And unless that evaluation is something clear and precise, the perfectionist cannot be sure he was perfect.  Thus, perfectionists tend to focus on easily measurable benchmarks to reassure themselves that they’ve done a good job.  They are very reluctant to take into account human variables that cannot be measured easily.  To use the incident I began with today about debate versus dialogue, a perfectionist is more likely to be happy when he makes an airtight point, than when he’s made a human connection, with all of its messy ambiguity.

            Another example: Raising children.  Parenting is hard for anyone who takes on the challenge, but childrearing is especially difficult for the perfectionist.  Children are notoriously non-perfect.  And many (not all, by any means, but many) perfectionists are not much better at tolerating imperfection in others, than they are at tolerating imperfection in themselves.  This may not be the most nurturing environment for a child to grow up in.  Again, I’m not claiming that a parent shouldn’t be strict, and have high expectations of a child.  I just get worried when parents seem to expect too much, sometimes even perfection.

            The same issue arises, of course, when it comes to cherishing a friend, or even a spouse.  We cannot form close friendships if we cannot tolerate imperfection in those we love.  You can count on it - your closest buddies will sometimes let you down.  And unlike you, Mr. Perfectionist, they may not even apologize for what they’ve done.  Can you live with that?  And if you cannot live with it, whom will you find to be a friend?  In this vein, I was struck by a recent piece on NPR covering the new Ken Burns series about the Roosevelts.  I think it is Meryl Streep who plays Eleanor Roosevelt, and they had her reading something Eleanor had written about her husband, about tolerating frailties amidst great strengths.  Now, I’m not claiming for a second that, for a normal couple, tolerating infidelity is a good thing.  But maybe one needs to be more tolerant as part of a political couple?  Well, the particulars are going to differ for everyone, but at some point, the general issue of being able to tolerate imperfections in those we love will arise for all of us, and the perfectionist may not be well suited to handling it.

            Now another problem for us perfectionists, is delegating: delegating work, for example.  We’re worried nobody’s going to do it as well as we will; might as well do it ourself.  We kill ourselves doing work that could be done by others, work that might actually be better if were done by others, even if the job wouldn’t be done as well.  For your own sanity, for the health of an organization, sometimes it’s best to let the non-perfectionists do some of the work.  And even if the perfectionist has overcome that challenge, and has delegated work to some someone else, there’s another challenge.  Can the perfectionist offer heartfelt praise for imperfect work?  Or will it only be criticism?  If an organization is going to function as a team, the perfectionist has to sometimes bite his lip. 

            As a Hebrew School teacher, I have a similar problem.  Sometimes, the best lessons allow students to experiment, to work among themselves, with just a little introduction and guidance from the teacher.  However, as a perfectionist, I find it hard to teach in that manner, to let kids learn something by themselves, without me lecturing to them.  My innate tendency is to think: “Isn’t it quickest if I just tell them myself what they need to know?  If they try it themselves, they’ll go all over the place, and take a lot more time to get the right answer.  I could have told them at the beginning what the right answer was!”  As any good teacher knows, frontal lecturing isn’t always the best way – kids often learn best by doing.  And they’re more likely to remember what they’ve discovered for themselves.  Teaching an effective lesson is a challenge for us perfectionists.

            And it’s not just those around us who suffer, when we’re perfectionists.  We make ourselves suffer.  We can have a lot of trouble cherishing our own imperfect strengths.  Our intolerance of imperfection is nowhere harsher than with ourselves.  We’re not good at forgiving ourselves, because we feel we should have done it completely right.  Let’s face it, depression can be a regular feature of the perfectionist’s life.  If nothing you do is ever good enough, you’re probably not a happy person.

            So you make yourself suffer, and everyone around you.  There a great little passage in the Talmud that describes this.  It says in tractate Kiddushin 70a - כל הפוסל, במומו פוסל – meaning: all who declare someone to be not kosher – have that very same defect in themselves.  Today we’d call it projection.  We perfectionists are often not good at tolerating other’s imperfections, because we cannot tolerate imperfections in ourselves.

Now it’s true, you don’t want to get too lax with yourself, you do need sometimes to be hard on yourself, especially at this time of year.  But in my experience, most adult perfectionists worry unnecessarily that they will become too lax, when realistically that’s never ever going to happen.  Sometimes the way forward, the path towards being a better servant of the Divine, is to back off.

            Now, if you are a perfectionist, and you haven’t completely given up on listening to this sermon, you may be saying to yourself: so, Rabbi, if we shouldn’t be too focused on perfection, what are we supposed to be??  Shouldn’t we always be trying to better ourselves, never completely content with who we are?  If the Rabbi gives you license to forgive yourself, where does it end?  Is everything now permitted?  Do we even need the community, and Days of Awe, and God?

            There’s no perfect answer to this critique.  The fact is, sometimes, in some contexts, virtual perfection is required.  And other times, perfection is the last thing that should be on your mind.  The trick is, to realize how much perfection is required in a given situation.

            Let’s take the extreme situation, where absolute perfection is the goal.  For example, let’s say you are a concert pianist.  Or any classical performer for that matter.  You need to practice enough so that your performances are as close to note-perfect as possible.  It’s a very demanding job.  But audiences, myself included, expect no less.  That’s one extreme, where perfection is in fact required.  But you know, that situation is not all that common in life.  It’s not even as common among performing musicians as you might think.  Think of a jazz musician, for example - someone for whom a few wrong notes might even enliven the experience, might take the performance into an unexpected, fresh direction.  A Jazz musician doesn’t walk out on stage hoping for a perfect performance – he hopes for inspiration, soul, a connection to the listeners, a feeling of transcendence, even.  What does perfection even mean in the context of improvisation?

            Now, I ask you, whom do we more resemble, in our lives?  Are we closer to classical performers? Must we be note-perfect friends, and spouses, and children and parents?  Or are we more like, in our lives, jazz performers, making it up as we go along, albeit following a certain underlying structure and moral code?  Sure, all the world may indeed be a stage, but what kind of stage?  Is life a stage on which is performed Shakespeare, with every word scripted?  Or is life more like a stage for improvisation, a seat-of-the-pants performance with people we know, and, mostly care for?  Maybe life should not be thought of as an impossibly difficult Chopin Etude that you could practice your whole life and never perfect.  Life comes at you too fast, and too unexpectedly, to be completely prepared.  You do the best you can, and you can’t spend too much time regretting the past.  Thinking about the past, sure - but only so as to prepare as best you can for the future.  Feeling too guilty for past imperfections prevents you from enjoying the next mitzvah that life has in store.

            There’s an apt midrash (Breishit Rabbah 84:19) about Reuven that makes this point.  The midrash builds on Reuven’s sin: you may remember that Reuven did a bad thing to his father Jacob – actually to one of Jacob’s concubines.  You’ll find the story in Genesis 35.  Anyway, this midrash wonders if, even though the sin was egregious, maybe Reuven came to feel too bad about what he’d done.  Anyway, a few chapters later, in chapter 37, all of Jacob’s sons are fed up with Joseph.  The brothers take hold of Joseph, and plan to kill him.  But Reuven persuades them to just put Joseph into a pit instead.  Reuven’s idea, the Torah says, was to come back and rescue him later, when the blood-thirsty brothers were not around.  However, when Reuven finally does return to the pit, he finds to his horror that Joseph has already been sold.

            So this midrash wonders, where was Reuven?  How could he have missed the selling of Joseph?  Wasn’t there a whole caravan that came through the area, to whom the brothers ended up selling Joseph?  To miss all that activity, Reuven must have been some distance away!?  Where did Reuven go, and why?  The midrash suggests that Reuven was off doing penance, fasting, and sitting in sackcloth.  When he finished, he returned to the pit, albeit too late.

            I love this midrash because it not only solves the problem of Reuven’s absence, but it makes precisely the larger point I’m trying to make today.  You can be so preoccupied with your past sins, that you miss the new mitzvah opportunities that present themselves.  Reuven, feeling so bad about what he did to hurt his father, ends up hurting his father even more, by not protecting Joseph from the other brothers.

            There is no off day from mitzvahs.  I mean, we do have off days, we’re not always at our best, of course.  But you can’t let yourself be distracted from the real mission of these Days of Awe.  We’re here to get ourselves back on track, to feel some of the burden of past sins lifted, so we can be open to the next mitzvah.


            So, how can we avoid the trap Reuven fell into?  How best to live in this world of daily improvisation, conscious of our past sins, but not shackled by them?  How can we be both calm about our past, and alert to the future?  Calm - not too worried about getting everything exactly right; alert - open to possibilities for doing good.  Calm: “Yeah, I didn’t do that so well – I bet I can do better next time”; and alert for that next time.  Calm: remembering that failure is an essential building block for success.  Alert: “What might I try differently next time around?”  Calm and alert: recognizing that being “perfect” may not what a situation really calls for, and being ok with giving it a try anyway.

            Anther of way of looking at it – how can we remain flexible, in a given situation, not wedded to just one way of being.  Here’s a text I was recently studying you might enjoy.  I included it in the handout for you if you want to look at it more closely later.  It’s from the Talmud, Tractate Yoma 79a.

There was an incident [during the holiday of Sukkot] when they brought

A cooked dish for Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai to taste   

And for Rabban Gamliel, two dates and some water, 

But they [these two Rabbis] insisted: “Take the food up to the Sukkah!”

And about this incident it was taught:

[That the Rabbis made this request] not because the halacha required it,

(because you’re allowed to eat snacks outside the sukkah)

But rather because they wanted to be strict with themselves. 

But when they brought before Rabbi Tzadok

An amount of food that was less than an egg’s-worth

He held it with a napkin,    (to avoid having to wash his hands)

And he ate it outside the sukkah, (because it was just a snack)

And he did not say a blessing after eating it. (because the amount of food was small)

What’s the point of this passage, you may ask?  I don’t think it’s here to cast aspersions – to make fun of people who are stricter than they need to be, or to mock those who are so lenient we could question their piety.  I think passage is just a reminder to us, that different approaches are out there, and worthy of note.  Both approaches have their place, depending on the situation you find yourself in at the moment.  It’s about flexibility.


            Which brings me to our Torah portion, never an easy text with which to wrestle.  Could it be that even God is flexible?  That what you imagine is Divine in one moment, is no longer Divine at some later point in time?  It’s a scary thought, but it seems like what happens in this portion. 

            This year, at the annual Rabbinical Assembly convention, Donniel Hartman gave a powerful talk about what you might call the reliability of God.  He called it “Putting God Second”.  His basic point: the best policy is not to follow whatever it is that you think God tells you to do.  Don’t pay to close attention to what God says.  For unless certain standards of human decency are allowed to trump God’s call,  you end up with fanaticism.  Abraham realized that, at the last minute.  He had several, contradictory instructions from God: sacrifice the child, don’t sacrifice the child.  He decided to go with the less extreme command.  Good call.

            My friend and colleague Rabbi Jonah Layman, who attended the conference with me, put it this way:  through the Akedah story, God is telling us “Hey, don’t always take what [you think] I’m saying as the absolute Truth”.  To put it in the context of this drash, even God is not perfect.  In fact, if you see God as perfect, you’re in for a letdown. 

Ok, maybe I’ve gone too far.  How about this: if you think your ability to channel/know God is perfect, you’re just wrong.  Sometimes that truths you hold to be self-evident are not, or at least not always true.  And how could it be otherwise.  You’re not God, you’re not always right, your understanding of what constitutes perfection is not be perfect. 

So we don’t even know what perfect is.  We can’t know what perfect is.  And this Torah reading reminds us that we can’t even trust God to tell us.  Does that sound depressing to you?  If so, I’m guessing that you are a perfectionist. 

       So today, I’m plugging imperfection.  A life well-lived has to be comfortable with imperfection.  A happy life, anyway.  I’m arguing that imperfection is a part of the plan - imperfection is not a bug, some cosmic mistake: rather it’s an integral, unavoidable feature of our existence.  When God tests Abraham in this parasha, I wonder if the real test is not whether or not Abraham would sacrifice his son, but whether Abraham can live with the ambiguity of God.  Whether Abraham can live not knowing what God wants, with not hearing God perfectly.  Whether Abraham is comfortable with a God that he cannot serve perfectly.  That is the test.  And it’s still our test today.

       The Hebrew root for test, נסה, which appears at the beginning of the akedah, also appeared when when we were reading Torah at the end of August, in Deut 13:4.  The question under discussion: how come false prophets can do miracles?  Why does God let that happen? Isn’t that going to confuse us?  The Torah says:  כי ה' א-ֹלהיכם מנסה אתכם – God is testing you.  God will let evil happen in His name.  You have to be able to live in a world where you cannot even trust miracles, where you can never be absolutely sure you know what I want, where you cannot be perfect.

       Which is not to say that you cannot know anything about what God wants.  Of course you can know a lot about right and wrong.  But you cannot know everything; you cannot be perfect.  And this is a good thing; if imperfection is part of the system, we can let up a little.


I want to close with a drash from my own teacher, Eliezer Diamond, who came down from New York and taught us local Conservative Rabbis a few weeks ago.  It’s based on a sentence from the daily amidah.  You can find it in your mahzor, on page 452.  This page 452 is in the middle of the ma’ariv service for right after the final shofar blast, at the end of Yom Kippur.  I’m looking at the third paragraph, which reads

Forgive us our Father, for we have sinned, pardon us our King, for we have transgressed,

For You are one who pardons and forgives.

            My teacher has a striking way to read this prayer - he imagines this paragraph said by two different voices.  The first voice is our own:

סלח לנו אבינו כי חטאנו, מחל לנו מלכנו כי פשענו

“Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned; pardon us, our King, for we have transgressed.”

So far, no change.  But what if the next line is not us continuing our prayer to God, but rather a response back from the Divine, the Source of wisdom, responding to our request for forgiveness.  Midrash occasionally rereads Biblical verses in this way, taking words away from a human character, and putting them in the mouth of God, or of an angel, or suchlike.  And the Hebrew word כי can sometimes mean “however”.   So in this reading, it is God who says: כי מוחל וסולח אתה!.  In other words, we say, “Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned; pardon us, our King, for we have transgressed”, and God responds: “Ah, but, it is you who are the pardoner and the forgiver.”

            God is saying, in this reading of the prayer, that, look, I cannot do this all myself!  Sure, I can help guide your culture towards an ethics of forgiveness that will work for your community.  I can insist that you must gain forgiveness from each other, before you try to find forgiveness from the Divine.  I can help you set aside a whole day just to fast, and to concentrate on being better, and remembering shortcomings, and making plans for the future.  But ultimately, this will only work if you let it work.  At the end of the Days of Awe, it is you have to allow yourself to feel forgiven for imperfection - I can’t do that for you.  You are the final piece in the forgiveness puzzle.  If you don’t allow the ritual to work, there’s nothing I can do.

            For this season, I wish you good thoughts.  I pray you have the ability to recognize what you did wrong this past year.  I pray that you can live with those imperfections.  Because if you can, I think you may have more energy to do better in the coming year. 


L’shanah Tova Tiketevu!