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Almost Perfect

03/06/2015 05:54:00 AM


Yom Kippur 1994/5755
by Rabbi Edward M. Feinstein

Our colleague, Rabbi Harold Kushner relates the following story:

One day, about a year and a half ago, I was in Baltimore, Maryland at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center. I had been invited to speak to the medical staff, the doctors and nurses, at noon, and to deliver a public lecture in the evening. After my talk to the staff, the hospital chaplain said to me, "There is one patient here who is very eager to meet you. He's read your book, he heard that you were coming, and asked if you could take time to see him. Now, please understand, if you don't want to do this, you certainly don't have to. I'll just tell him you were too busy. His name is Rick Palomares, he's a thirty-two year old Episcopal clergyman who is dying of AIDS." I hesitated for a moment, then indicated that I'd be perfectly willing to see him. I went down there, feeling very noble and virtuous, feeling like I was the Jewish Mother Theresa, and I left fifteen minutes later feeling that I had gained much more from the encounter than I had given. It was a memorable experience.

I entered a room and saw a pale, thin man lying in bed, hooked up to tubes. I said, "How are you doing?" and he answered, "not too good, but I'm getting used to it." I asked him, "Do you think you're dying without God?" because I know thi is an issue for a lot of religious AIDS patients. "Do you feel that God is punishing you, and that's why you're sick?" He answered, "No, I don't. I think I misused my sexuality, as a lot of people do in different ways, and I'm paying the price for that, and it's a high price. But I don't feel I'm dying without God. Just the opposite. The only good thing about my illness is that I learned that something is true which I could only have hoped was true before, -- that God loves and forgives people, no matter how much they've messed up their lives. My main source of comfort is that God has not turned away from me."

"For six years as a priest," he told me, "and for many more years before that, I tried to be perfect so that God would love me, so that God would have to love me because I was doing everything right. But I couldn't be perfect, and it frightened and frustrated me because I thought that maybe I wasn't good enough for God to love. Every time I gave in to temptation, every time I told a lie to cover myself, I was afraid that God was as contemptuous of my weakness as I was of myself. But it's a funny thing. Now that I have AIDS and I'm dying, I'm not afraid anymore. Now that God knows who I really am and I don't have to struggle to impress Him anymore, I can be at peace. I feel more tranquil than I've felt for a long time."

He looked at me and said, "I don't have very long to live. I'll be leaving this hospital soon because there is nothing more they can do for me. I hope my congregation won't judge me and reject me for my homosexuality, because I have one more sermon I have to preach so that what I've learned here won't die with me. It's very important for me to tell what I've learned: that God knows how flawed and imperfect we are, and He loves us anyway." He died six months later.

Where do we get the idea that we must be perfect to be good, to be worthy of love and acceptance? Do we get it from our parents who had such lofty goals for us, who always wanted us to do better and make the most of ourselves? Do we get it from our teachers, who spent more time pointing out what we did wrong than praising us for what we got right? Did we get it from rabbis and the religious teachers of our youth who emphasized the seriousness of whatever moral and ritual infractions we were capable of, when we were children, and taught us that every little deed counted? Where do we get this idea that to be worthy of love, we must be perfect?

The truth is that perfection is a terrible burden. It leaves us weary and guilty and defeated. The psychologist Daniel Levinson talks about men burdened with the "tyranny of the dream". It's not enough to be good at what you do, you must be the best! It's not enough to be respected as competant, you must be number one! It's not enough to make a contribution, you must be remarkable! How many burn out, self-destruct, sell their souls to the devil, for what? to be the greatest! Levinson teaches a profound wisdom: only when a man no longer feels he must be remarkable, is he free to be himself, and become truly creative -- working according to his wishes and talents.

Sad irony is that it doesn't make us lovable. In the effort to maintain perfection we become stubborn and defensive, insisting the problem is someone else's fault, deflecting every criticism, rationalizing every shortcoming. Do you know people who insist they are perfect? Do you like them?

There is a Peanuts cartoon:
Lucy tells Charley Brown --
I have examined my life and found it to be without flaw.
Therefore, I'm going to hold a ceremony and present myself with a medal. I will then give a moving acceptance speech. After that, I'll greet myself in the receiving line.
She concludes somewhat sadly --
When you're perfect, you have to do everything yourself.

Do you really have to be perfect to be loved? Would people not love you if you knew you as you really are? One of the most liberating discoveries you can make in life is to find out that you can be less than perfect, and still be loved.

It's not that our shortcomings and mistakes and sins don't matter--they matter a lot -- but they're not enough to shatter our relationship with God or with those around us. You can say to people, "I may be wrong", and they still respect you. You can say to your family, "I'll try and help, but I can't solve your problems", and they still love you. You can say to co-workers, "I messed this up", "I need your help", and they won't reject fact you'll find that it opens new doors of communication.

Love doesn't mean that people admire your perfection...on the contrary: Love means accepting someone in full awareness of all their imperfections. Love isn't blind -- on the contrary -- it means to look straight at a person in all their faults and still accept them. If you love, you forgive. If you are loved, you feel forgiven.

Listen to your tradition: Kol Nidre, v'es-arey, v'haramei...the promise we made to ourselves, the vows, the goals, the expectations that we fell short of this year -- the plans that miscarried, the objectives unreached...they're dissolved. Let go. V'yomer Adonai Salachti K'dvarecha, you're forgiven.

This is the comforting lesson in learning Torah -- here are people with imperfections -- big imperfections -- and God still loves them, and the covenant is still transmitted through them. Here is Abraham who tries to murder his kids. Here is Isaac, blind to the rivalry he sets up between his two sons. Here is Jacob who loves one child over the others and sends them into murderous rage. Here is David who commits adultry with his next door neighbor's wife, and then sends the poor shlemiel of a husband into battle to die and cover his mistake.

Here are people who fail. Moses fails, Elijah fails, Jeremiah fails... God fails. He creates a world and leaves it in the care of humanity, and we mess it up. So He starts again with Noah, and Noah gets drunk, and his descendants fill the world with violence and cruelty. So he starts again, with us...and He's still waiting to see how we do...

Can we understand these people? Can we understand them as imperfect, flawed, frightened people? But can we still honor them and love them and forgive them?

You want to hear some of the most beautiful words in the Torah?

And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age -- a old man and full of years, and he was gathered to his ancestors.

And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah in the field of Ephron.

Here is Ishmael-- the son exiled from the household, sent out into the barren desert to die;

And here is Isaac -- the son he took to the mountain to offer as a sacrifice to his God...

The two -- survivors of this man's religious passion, gathered together over Abraham's grave to bury him, in love and in honor. Why did they come back? Because they forgave him. Avraham Avinu --the father of us all, the archtype, the model for all fathers...

How many people do we know who are constantly driven, no matter how hard they work, no matter what they accomplish, no matter what success they achieve in professions, in family life, in the community...driven to fulfill some parental expectation ... an expectation voiced years and years ago.

And how many feel themselves failures, no matter what they achieve, because those expectations were never realistic, never fulfillable.

Rabbi Schulweis once proposed that we Jews have a particular, distinctively Jewish form of child abuse -- it's called disappointment.

So many people burdened by the feeling that they've disappointed their parents -- after all their parents did for them.

So many people still arguing with parents, still longing for their approval...

In some cases, from parents elderly, and senile;

In some cases, from parents dead twenty, thirty years

...and a daughter still trying to get them to smile and say to her, "You're a good girl".

...dead twenty, thirty years, and a son still trying to hear, "You did good".

So many people filled with anger...
... for parents whose expectations were monumental but whose affection and approval so stingy and thin...

Angry people lashing out at everyone -- at children, at spouse, friends, as if to scream, "Get off my back!...Stop making me feel guilty!"

A lifetime of anger for want of six words --
"I love you, whatever you do!"

Do you suppose that this Yom Kippur, we might be able to recognize that our parents -- like us -- were weak, flawed, imperfect?

Could we recognize that their expectations relected their own failures and frustrations? Their criticism, the guilt they heaped on, the approval they neglected -- their sins as parents, reflected their fears? Maybe your father needed you to be a success to cover his own fear of failure? Maybe your mother was afraid to let go to cover her own loneliness? Can we forgive them this Yontiff for letting their fears drown out their love?

Listen to your tradition: Kol Nidre, v'es-arey, v'haramei...the promise they made to us, the expectations, the demands they made...they're dissolved. Let go of the anger, the resentment, the guilt, the longing for their approval. V'yomer Adonai Salachti K'dvarecha, it's time to forgive their imperfections, forgive their mistakes, forgive their short-sitedness, the decisions made from fear and not from wisdom.

There is a midrash that I wouldn't tell your children:

All his life, Abraham wanted only one thing...a son, an heir, a successor, the assurance of his continuity, his immortality. But that was the one thing denied him. God promises to make his descendants as numerous as the sands on the shore and the stars in the sky...but all Abraham wants is a son. God will change his name from Abram to Abraham -- the father of many nations...but all he wants is a son. And with each pasing year, the desire and expectation only intensifies.

Finally, Isaac is born -- the miracle son of his 90-year-old Sarah. Isaac -- the child of laughter, the child of irony, for he's not the child Abraham expected. He's weak, timid, passive. He can't stand up to Ishmael. He is dependent, unable to do for choose a wife, to find his way in life, he depends upon others.

And Abraham is confused. There must be a mistake. This can't be the heir, the successor, the posterity I've waited for...This flawed, imperfect weakling. This isn't the one.

The thought cemented itself into Abraham's mind: This one must go too! Ishmael had no self-control, no discipline, no discretion...and he was sent into the desert. And now this one too, this creature of passivity, unable to act on is own...he must go too. Soon this thought became Abraham's obsession -- it seemed to come as a commandment: He's not my son. He's not the son I prayed for. He's a mistake. He's not mine.

And one day, Abraham took the boy and the knife and the wood, and headed off toward the wilderness. Arriving at Moriah, he bound the boy, and set the wood, and raised the knife. An angel of the Lord stopped him: "Lay not your hand upon that boy!"

Parental love is complex.

We want our children not only to be successful, but to be the successes we never were. We want them to redeem our failures, redeem our future. We give them everything, hoping they'll be the best, the brightest, the most successful, the most popular, the most beautiful...

We want them to fulfill our dreams, to live out our fantasies...

And when they don't, when they turn out to be just people --flawed, weak, imperfect, impulsive, dependent, needy-- people, just like us, how do we feel?

We love them, we hurt for them, but do we say to ourselves, like Abraham, "this is a mistake"? I sacrificed, I suffered, but this isn't the future I bargained for?! And do we strike out in anger and frustration, to make a sacrifice of the error -- cut them down, cut them off?

This yontiff, can you forgive your children? Forgive them for being people -- flawed, imperfect, dependent -- just as you are? Can you love them for who they are, and not who you dreamed they would be?

Listen to your tradition: Kol Nidre, v'esharay, v'haramei...
The promises, the visions and expectations, the standards to which you held your children, they are dissolved, released. Salachti K'dvarecha, they are forgiven for being more like us than we wanted them to be! They are forgiven for leading their own lives instead of the lives we designed for them. They are forgiven.

The tradition teaches that before we can enter the sancturary at Yom Kippur, before we can come to God for forgiveness, we must go to all those around us and forgive them for the injuries and insults and disappointments they caused us. But the tradition has it backwards -- It works the other way around. First, you have to feel forgiven. You have to feel whole. You must realize that you are a good, acceptable person, even if you do sometimes fail, even if you do some things wrong. And then, only then, after you've been liberated from the burden of trying to be perfect, of defending and justifying yourself at every point, only then do you feel empowered to forgive others.

And this remarkable holiday mobilizes every resource to get us to that point, to that moment. Ten times we will repeat our confession:

Our God and God of our ancestors, we are neither so hardened nor so arrogant as to say before you, O Lord our God we are righteous and have not sinned, for in truth we have sinned...Ashamnu, Bagadnu...

Ten times we will repeat those words, on the chance that once we might even mean it -- a miracle! -- we stop denying, stop defending ourselves, stop making up excuses. We admit that we are weak, selfish, confused, misguided, impulsive, that we have a capacity for the hurtful, the destructive, the injurious...

And at that moment, something unexpected happens, something remarkable, something surprising...we don't feel humiliated, embarassed, put down...we feel relieved, we feel clean and strong, ready to celebrate.

Do you know how this holiday was celebrated in ancient times? Do you know how it came to be?

In the first century of the common era, Jews would come on pilgrimage from all over the world to the Temple of Jerusalem. The Temple was the most beautiful building in all antiquity: a cube of gleaming marble topped with a golden crown that ran along the roof line. The courtyard was ringed in a triple colonnade of white marble columns, and paved in white marbel. On Yom Kippur, the courtyard of the Temple was jammed. The priest would emerge in his white vestements and the gold headband inscribed with the name of God. He brought two goats forward, one became the scapegoat, sent into the wilderness bearing the sins of the nation, and the other, the sin offering to cleanse the people and their institutions of wrongdoing. The priest would enter the holy of holies three times -- once to purify his family, the priestly class that served in the Temple, once to purify the Levites who administered the affairs of state, of education and justice, and finally he would emerge to cleanse the people. He declared them pure, in the name of God, and at that one moment, that one unique moment, he pronouned the holy name of God. The people would fall on their faces, and scream out: Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto L'olam V'ed. Then they would rise, and with a great cheer, celebrate the coming of the new year. They would dance. Overcome with the sense of being released, cleansed, purified, renew, reborn, they danced. Young women would retreat to the vineyards and allow their hair to fly freely, and if a young woman caught sight of a young man she desired, she could catch him and bring him to her parents -- and her father would approach his father to negotiate the match. All the weddings for the coming year were announced on Yom Kippur afternoon -- new families, new love, new life.

If you've never seen Yom Kippur in Jerusalem, comments one rabbi in the Talmud, you've never seen the face of joy. The joy of release of rebirth of renewal.

I go to the cemetary, and I see grave markers. And on the markers are little piles of stones -- pebbles left by children, by parents, by brothers and sister, by friends and lovers, pebbles testifying that we've come to visit, we haven't forgotten.

And I wonder sometimes, for each one of those pebbles, each one of those stones on the marker, how many stones sit upon the heart? Stones of anger and stones of stones pain, stones of frustration, and stones of disappointment, stone of unfulfilled longing for love and approval, stones of guilt and stones of shame, stones of loneliness and stones of despair.

Listen to your tradition:

To everything there is a season, and time for every purpose under heaven;
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to reap;
A time to kill and a time to heal;
A time to tear down and a time to build up;
A time for weeping and a time for laughing;
A time to mourn and a time to dance;
A time to gather stones and a time to cast stones away.

Let them go. Let go of all the expectations and the demands and the longings. Let go of all the anger and resentment, the guilt and the shame. Let them go and be reborn this year.

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Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780