In Search of Imperfection. Yom Kippur 2017 / 5778 Rabbi Ralph Genende

A group of women were at a seminar on how to live in a loving relationship with their husbands. The women were asked, “How many of you love your husband?” All the women raised their hands.

Then they were asked, “When was the last time you told your husband you loved him?”

Some women answered ‘today,’ a few ‘yesterday,’ and some couldn’t remember.

The women were then told to take out their phones and text their husband:

“I love you, sweetheart.”

Next the women were instructed to exchange phones with another woman and read aloud the text message she received in response to her message.

Here are some of the replies:

  1. Who the hell is this?
  2. What now? Did you wreck the car again?
  3. If you don’t tell me who this message is actually for, someone will die.
  4. I thought we agreed you wouldn’t drink during the day.
  5. Your mother is coming to stay with us, isn’t she?

What I love about this story is how beautifully it illustrates that there are no perfect marriages. There are no perfect people, Ein Tzadik BaAretz “There is no person on this earth who does only good and never sins”.

The search for perfection must be one of the most harmful of human pursuits. There are probably few things as damaging as looking at the lives of others and believing that they are charmed – their kids are beautiful, their relationships are amazing, their homes always calm and peaceful. That’s not real life but a Bollywood movie!

Judaism has always been more about imperfection than perfection. The recognition that “there’s a crack in everything”. We’ve always regarded the body as a flawed instrument, that’s why you need a brit milah to complete the male physique. We’ve always seen the mind as an imprecise tool, sharp and useful but prone to being fooled and guided by the heart. And as for the heart, a wonderful organ but so open to temptation and as changeable as a Melbourne day.

Perfection must be one of the worst enemies of religion. It creates the illusion that our ancestors were flawless, our teachers phenomenal, our followers fabulous and our teachings all fail -proof.

The perfect is the enemy of the good. It paralyses good people. It stunts the growth of ordinary people and it messes up religious people because what’s the point of doing anything if you can’t do it flawlessly? Perfection is what drives people in our society to distraction especially in the 3 inescapable areas of life: the need for food, the aging process and the pursuit of happiness. The belief that I can stay sleek, youthful and happy… Forever thin, forever young, forever blessed and of course always in a good mood. No wonder the most frequently prescribed drugs in the U.S and probably Australia are Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil or Aropax as we call it.

I’m convinced that’s why the Halacha said you should eat apples dipped in honey (on Rosh Hashana) and not bathed in Nutella or chocolate spread. Honey reminds us that life isn’t always sweet but, of necessity, has a sting too. As the popular Hebrew song “Al Hadvash ve al Haoketz“ — For the honey and the sting, for the bitter and the sweet”. On Yom Kippur, it’s worth reminding ourselves of our all too human frailty, of acknowledging our ‘persistent failures,’ that we fall and stumble and need to constantly pick ourselves up, shake off the dust, and find a way to go on.

You want to know why we read in the Torah tomorrow afternoon about the “arayot” ערייות a detailed and embarrassing list of forbidden sexual practices rivalling Game of Thrones? Precisely because on Yom Kippur when we’re feeling so holy and pious: ‘Wow – we’re living without food and water and no sex”, Judaism says don’t kid yourself that you’re beyond making mistakes like worshipping the golden gods of success and achievement, that you’ll never be tempted by the golden boys and girls of fantasy and infidelity. And don’t think for one moment that the tsaddik, the great person, never experiences failure, foolishness or fatuousness.

Leadership, even of the very highest order, is often marked by failure. Moshe was frequently dogged by a sense of disappointment and lack of belief in his capacity “If the Israelites won’t listen to me why would Pharaoh listen to me since I speak with faltering lips” (Exodus 6:12). Churchill was hounded by the black dog of depression, Gandhi couldn’t unite the Muslims and Hindus, Mandela felt the fear.

Truth is, it’s only when we stumble that we grow. The greatest human beings are not those who never fail but those who survive failure. Those who just don’t give up but treat failure as a learning experience.

Jim Collins put it that “Failure is not so much a physical state as a state of mind. Success is falling down and getting up one more time without end”. Rabbi Yitschak Huttner writing to a despondent student said ‘A failing that many of us suffer is that we focus on the high attainments of great people forgetting how long it took them to get there, overlooking  the inner struggles they must have faced’. Greatness cannot be achieved without failure and the road to success is littered with failures. Just look how many start-up ventures don’t actually make it. Think about the number of rejections JK Rowling had before Harry Potter levitated into the stratosphere of success. It’s easy to succeed at a good time and I’m always somewhat amazed at how in Kennedy’s immemorial phrase success has so many fathers but failure is an orphan. We hate taking responsibility for our stuff-ups and having made a few of those both in my personal and communal life and sometimes even in sermons, I know how hard it is to say I messed up…. I’m sorry.

If there was one man in Jewish life who radiated perfection, paragon of virtue, it was the Kohen HaGadol, the high Priest, Chief Honcho elevated above his brothers, moving in the company of angels on Yom Kippur as he entered the inner sanctuary, the Kodesh Kedoshim sanctum sanctorum.

Now consider the following scenario. It’s Yom Kippur. A day of purity and holiness. The Kohen Gadol has gone through his tedious preparations to enter the inner sanctum with purity of body and mind. He has carefully avoided any contact with the impurity of death for as you know Kohanim can’t be too close to a dead body and keep their distance at funerals. Suddenly on his way, he alone comes upon a corpse out in the fields. Jewish law requires him to personally arrange a burial even though it is Yom Kippur and the hopes of the entire nation are dependent and focused on him. Says Rav Soloveitchik – this illuminates a basic principle of Judaism: The body of this castaway, probably some homeless anonymous vagabond, takes precedence over the most spiritually charged man and his service on the most climactic day of our calendar (Rabbi Ari Kahn).

Human dignity trumps ritual. The nameless hobo is more important that the High Priest. Perfection yields to the reality of life in all its ugly brutality. This is the humanism at the core of Judaism. This is the recognition that the purpose of ritual, of mitzvoth, is to make us more human.

The essence of Judaism is its morality and mentshlikheid, the fact that it puts people in all their imperfections first. The mitzvot are critical tools to help us be more moral. Shabbat, Kashrut, Jewish learning help empower our compassion. Kashrut should unlock our feelings for God’s animals, teach restraint and how to eat ethically. Shabbat reminds us how to carve out time to communicate better, how to respect our environment and how to listen to our inner voices .And Jewish learning isn’t only  academic but about how be a more virtuous human being.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg who lost her young husband to a heart attack writes that one of the impediments she encountered on her road to recovery was the belief that life wasn’t meant to be like this. A young wife shouldn’t lose her partner, a young child their parent and a parent their child. How do you move beyond such unbearable loss? Says Sandberg: the first thing she had to learn and to accept was that life is never perfect, we all live in a broken world…

In a world of hate and inhumanity Judaism is a bridge of love and humanity. It’s not for nothing a disproportionate number of Jews fight for justice, provide charity and work in the helping professions – It’s in our Gemara and in our genes, in our teachings and in our blood. But we’ve stopped talking love – when did you last hear the Israeli Rabbanut declare – אהבת ישראל “We love and respect Jews, let’s see how we can help them improve their lives, let’s see how we can help those seeking to convert rather than push them away with suspicion and disdain as Shamai famously did. Why this aversion to conversion – have we forgotten how Hillel embraced the chutzpadike would – be – convert (standing on one foot) with a sweetness and patience.

Yes, of course there need to be standards and requirements, conversion isn’t like choosing a new restaurant – It’s a delicate heart operation; a long considered and subtle process. But why are we making it so hard for these young people, why do we demand such intimate scrutiny and shlep the process out? Love the convert is surely a mitzvah that begins the moment you meet that stranger who wants to become a Jew. Yes, people can’t always be trusted. As Hartman put it Shamai may have had the truth, but he risked having no people. Hillel may have had the people but he risked losing Torah. At the end of the day, we rule like Hillel, we would rather err on the side of compassion then leave the stranger out there in the cold…

In a time of hate we need to reaffirm love. Religion should be the great unifier in Israel and in the Jewish community not a political football. Conversion is one of the most critical issues in Jewish life today .It  can split the Orthodox community both here and in Israel if we don’t find that path of darchei noam, of reaching out in care and consideration. Love is not un-Jewing or invalidating thousands of converts you previously accepted. It’s about allowing Reform Jews to pray in an area at the wall. Love is not about blacklists but white lists. It’s about sharing the burden of protecting your community or your country; going to the army. Love is the only power; Thornton Wilder called it the only hope, the only survival. Jonathan Sacks says – As we ask God to write us in the Book of Life, he asks us, what have you done with your life so far? Have you thought about others or only yourself? Have you brought healing to a place of human pain, hope to a place where you found despair? You may have been a success but have you been a blessing? Have you written others into the Book of Life?

Love is more about you and what I can give rather than about me and what I can get. We all hunger deep down for appreciation and recognition. One of the amazing reminders I’ve gained in the first weeks of my Zaidahood is the way this little baby responds to voice, touch and face. We connect most vitally, most potently, most intimately, face-to-face, hand to hand, heart to heart not battery to power not touch to screen, not Facebook to friend. Don’t email me. Don’t message me. Don’t WhatsApp me. Rather, hold me when my heart is bursting or breaking. And help me recognize that I don’t have to be perfect to love and be loved

On Yom Kippur – God holds us in love and forgiveness and it’s the closest we can come face-to-face. He comes out to meet and greet us. He accepts us in all our confused imperfectability. He takes our fragile hearts and mends them, he takes our broken hallelujahs and heals them. He rejoices in our humane-ness and celebrates our humanity.

Let’s not limit our challenges, but challenge our limits. Let us not disappoint him but commit to turning our failures into triumphs our disappointments into opportunities. Let’s revel and rejoice in our imperfections…

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.
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