Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence. — Vince Lombardi
It is probably one of the more mistranslated phrases in the Bible. When Moses meets God for the first time, at the Burning Bush, God informs Moses that Moses will be The Redeemer, the one who will take the young Israelite nation out of the slavery of Egypt and on to the journey towards The Promised Land.
At that historic encounter of Man and God, Moses asks how he should describe God to the Israelite slaves. God answers cryptically that he is “Eheye Asher Eheye” which is classically mistranslated as “I am that I am,” but really means “I shall be what I shall be.” The understanding of what tense God is talking about somehow got lost in translation. God in this verse is in the future tense. (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has an entire outstanding book on the concept, appropriately named “Future Tense”).
The Berdichever expands on the encounter of Moses and God and on the verse of “Eheye Asher Eheye” and teaches what may seem like a counter-intuitive lesson.
He describes the Tzadik, the righteous person, who must know that every time he reaches some divine accomplishment, some gain in his spiritual service, that there is an even greater accomplishment ahead that he has not reached. He has not reached completion. And when he reaches the next spiritual accomplishment, again, he becomes conscious of the next challenge, the accomplishment that lays ahead, and again, how he has reached another level of incompletion. It is infinite. Man can never reach completion. He can never reach perfection. Nonetheless, man is enjoined to ever climb higher and higher. Not only God, but man, and specifically a Tzadik, somehow emulating God, is defined not merely by what he is, but rather by what he will be. And what he will be is something that is constantly growing, climbing, achieving. “I shall be what I shall be.”
The Berdichever relates to a verse from Psalms where King David asks for “just one thing…to gaze upon the pleasantness of God.” He explains that King David is articulating the prayer of the Tzadik, the righteous one, who only wants to gaze upon God. He wants to keep his eye on God. In today’s vernacular we would say that he wants to “keep his eye on the ball.” That ball being God, divine service, dedication to a spiritually rich and meaningful life.
The Tzadik, whenever he reaches some higher level, some spiritual accomplishment, doesn’t want to forget for a moment that there’s more, that he’s incomplete, that there are infinite levels of progress that remain to a human being. He doesn’t want to let God budge from his sights. He prays to God for help with that focus, with that dedication, with that constant attachment to God as our source of life, mission and purpose.
May we indeed constantly climb higher, never losing our focus.
To the team dedicated to translating Rabbi Sacks’ work to Spanish on a weekly basis.