Work in progress

We all suffer from a God complex.  We want to get things perfectly right the first time, and we get really frustrated with ourselves when we don’t.

You’d think we would pick up on the pattern by now.  You’d think we’d catch onto the fact that there is nothing we ever did perfectly the first time we had a shot at it.  You’d also think that we’d go easier on other people when they mess up, since we ALL mess up.

We’re all works in progress.  We’re all works in progress.  We’re all works in progress.

This is a mantra that should be repeated again and again and again.

If you listen carefully to Judaism, you here that in fact it is.

This coming Friday morning, on Simchat Torah, we will conclude the Torah with the tragic death of Moses at the frontier of the land he so desperately desired to set foot on, and within minutes, we start all over again: “In the beginning of God’s creating the Heavens and the Earth…”

There is so much depth and meaning and nuance to be appreciated when we go back to the beginning.  We didn’t get everything that there was there to get the first time around.  What better way to prove it to ourselves than to study it again?

We quickly learn that ironically God doesn’t suffer from a God complex: He creates Light and it’s “Good,” even by His own assessment. The problem is that it was “too good” to use, so He adjusts it to be more “user-friendly.”  After all, the light is for people, not for Him.

Why stop at “Good” when you can go for “Great?”*  What’s technically “perfect” is not always what the world needs**.  And so, in this spirit — a very modern spirit indeed — God iterates in His design.  Like a good teacher, God adjusts to His students who change and grow.

Our problem is that we look at ourselves as more static than our Creator does.  He leads by example because He believes in our ability to grow past failure.  But do we?

Adam and Eve mess up, and they’re given a chance to own up to their mistakes.  They fail to do so.

Cain kills his brother Abel, and God opens the opportunity for him to accept responsibility, but he only half does.

Noah is given the opportunity to really care for humanity.  He doesn’t quite succeed.  The flood comes.  However, he does successfully tend to the animal kingdom on the ark.  Finally, when the waters subside, and is asked to restart the human race with all the Divine assurances that he can do so, he gives up before he even starts***.

Our fatal failure is allowing our failures to be fatal.

If we were to take a sober look at failure we would surely find that historically, failure is the #1 cause for success.  Google has become what it is not in spite of its failures, but because of at least 50 major flops and counting.  They also estimate that they have on the order of thousands of mini-failures every week.  They pride themselves on failing and learning from their mistakes.

We as a nation have also been built on failure with three and a half millennia on record more than Google.  If anyone can brag about our failures, it’s us!  We’ve been destroyed, and we rebuilt.  We were destroyed again, and we rebuilt again.  Exiled and redeemed.  We get knocked down, and we get up again.  We did it again in the second half of the last century, and you better believe that we’re going to do it again in this one.

In the timeless words of King Solomon, “the righteous falls seven times, and gets back up” — they are not less righteous for having fallen — they actually become righteous by getting back up every time****.

The entire Talmud is composed of failed theories of Jewish law and ethics, and the more complete and resilient theories that emerge out of them.  Both the failed theories and surviving theories are recorded, and we can often learn more from the failed ones even if it is the final ones that form the bottom line from a practical perspective.

When one finishes a volume of the Talmud, no matter how well he’s come to know it, he recites a beautiful refrain addressed to the personified volume that they just invested so much time and energy into learning: “We will return to you, and you will return to us.” We assure it that closing the book is only temporary.  Learning doesn’t stop.  It can’t stop.  Because we are all works in progress.

Knowing this can transform our lives.  It liberates us to live more joyfully.  As we absorb this mantra that resounds like a chorus throughout Jewish life, we become more patient with ourselves and with one another.  We realize the obvious: we don’t have to be perfect — no one is perfect.  And then, the most magical thing happens — we start to have fun again.  We aren’t performing; we’re discovering.  No one enjoys failing, even in a game, but knowing that there is another round, where you can apply what you’ve learned, brings the fun  back very quickly.

The only thing we have to commit to is to learn constantly — from our mistakes and the mistakes and wisdom of others.

As we emerge from Yom Kippur into Sukkot and then Simchat Torah and beyond, the joy we take with us is not primarily that we have a clean slate — a perfect record — but that life is a process in which we try our best and can continue to learn and grow, even from our most seemingly tragic mistakes.  With this in mind and heart, we head into another year of life growing and having fun while doing it.

*Notice that only after man is created — the first fallible creature due to his free will — is the world referred to as “Very Good” (1:31).

**”God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good and separated the light from the darkness” (1:3-4)  See Rashi who explains that this means that the light was “too good” — too powerful — and would be abused.  God shows us right away that the creative process is an iterative one in which we make mistakes and can fix them (Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld).

***God “tries” so hard to get Noah to believe that he can do it — that he can restart the world (8:15-9:17).  Noah, however, doesn’t believe in himself, and gets drunk instead (9:20-21).

****Proverbs 24:16 according to the Rav Yitzhak Hutner (Purim).

*****This piece is primarily inspired by the Alter of Slabodka’s speech “Destruction and Reconstruction” published in Ohr Hatzafun.

About the Author
Rabbi Jack Cohen is the Director of Education of the Jewish Enrichment Center in West Village of New York City, working to create interactive educational programs that grant access to Torah that is deep and relevant to 20-somethings who are thirsty for it. Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi for Meor at the University of Pennsylvania and an Israel programs educator before that. He is currently coauthoring a book on the subject of individuality and self-esteem through the eyes of the Sages, called "Born to Be." He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem after his BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy, and earned his Masters in Education at Harvard last year.
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