These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

On Imperfection

Posted on November 9, 2009 by Mosheh

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I just want to say one thing: I love our tradition.

The following is commentary, so buckle in.

I love our tradition because of the way it normalizes and honors imperfection – the real, as opposed to idealized, experience of our lives. We will start with examples in Halakhah and then move on to our role models, the sages and prophets of Tanakh.

Why do we hang the mezuzah on a 45 degree angle? Is that the ‘right’ way? One opinion in the Talmud says it should be completely horizontal. The other says completely vertical. Halakhah says half-way, and honors both. Why do we cover our eyes when we say the blessing over candles Friday night? Traditionally, we say blessings before doing mitzvot. Here, however, if we said it before, then Shabbos will have already begun and we can no longer make fire. So, we honor both needs – light candles, then cover our eyes making an ‘as if’ they have not yet been lit, then bless, then open our eyes and appreciate the light. What kind of drink do we need for Shabbos Kiddush? Some opinions say it must be wine, others say a variety of alcoholic beverages will do. We honor both by making wine necessary for Friday night but being flexible for Shabbos afternoon.

“Both these and those are the words of the Living G-d.” We honor them out of the humility that we may not know. We honor them in respect of the process. We honor them for the sake of Shalom Bayit – Peace in the Home (and here I mean the bigger home of the Jewish people), and giving honor to all those who are contributing as a service of G-d. Depending on where you stand halakhically, these examples may or may not be interesting. Until I came to Pardes this year, I probably would have yawned. I still yawn. However, I also experience an increasing appreciation for the process and some of its values. Our way of walking, what traditional Judaism calls Halakhah, is to combine tradition (Torah and all its commentaries) with the best our fallible minds can do, together, in community. The purpose is to create Holy community and rituals to facilitate connection to each other and to G-d.

However, even more foundational to this lesson than Halakhah is the imperfection of our role models. I will list several examples in a quasi-order of fallibility. Let’s take Moses, Rabbi Yehuda, David, and Abraham. Moses, our most revered and holy leader, had the chutzpah to argue with G-d, and was heavy of mouth. How can you be a leader when you’re nervous about public speaking? Yehuda had sex with a prostitute, who he later found out was his daughter-in-law. David, warrior and inspirational poet, the very same person who slept with Bathsheva while already having a 1000 women harem, practically had her husband murdered. Abraham drives away one son and almost kills the other, possibly leading to Sarah’s death, coincidentally the very next event described after the Akeida!

Depending on how much midrash one has studied, you are likely to know of ways we can read all of these stories and have our heroes come out to have Divine inspiration, knowing the future, and somehow infallible throughout the whole experience. I, however, prefer to read them as tremendous leaders who were also deeply fallible. The reason is that I, too, am fallible. I would also LIKE to be great. However, I know for sure that I am fallible.  The innovation here is not permission to be fallible; it is that we can also be great while doing so!

Moses, for example, argues, but as we all know took the job and led us out of Egypt. Rabbi Yehuda owned up to his mistake in front of the entire Sanhedrin (Jewish Senate) and gave his daughter-in-law her due. David acknowledged his ‘sin’ when confronted by a prophet. He then went further, stating, “Hatati l’negdi tamid” (My sin is always before me). Contrast this with the quote and meditation from Psalms “Shviti Hashem l’negdi tamid” (I place G-d in front of me, always). David’s sin, his heit, he put in front of him always. He became increasingly aware that both ‘sin’ and G-d could not be in one place and did what he could to t’shuvah, to turn back. We still read and study David in the Psalms today. Life cannot be brought back, actions cannot be undone, but we can own up to them, and use them to inspire/push ourselves forward.

This is a reality of life that both frightens and inspires me. I feel fear because I see the examples of our sages. I do not think I can live up to their holyness (and, yes, I can spell it with a ‘y’). However, neither do I want to fall in the same ways they have fallen. I am inspired because I think our tradition has tried to learn from these examples, even while we continue to make similar mistakes. In acknowledging both ‘these and those’ as words of the Living G-d in Halakhah, I think we lay vulnerable and take responsibility for the fact that we do not ‘truly’ know. For me, this is an acceptance that neither the hard work of our intellect nor intuition/prayer necessarily gives answers which are foolproof, definitely correct, or necessarily true. However, we do not allow this lack of clarity or lack of knowledge to prevent us from taking responsibility for making decisions and accepting their consequences.

We have made the most fundamental decisions a communal process – with other human beings, and with G-d. We argue ad nauseam. And, we partner with the Divine by making a genuine attempt to respect and connect with the word of G-d (whether you define that as Tradition or Intuition) and combine it with our fallible intellect. We make t’shuvah – ask forgiveness, make repair when possible, admit when not, and turn, even spin if necessary, until we reach a deeper truth. We do our best to honor all opinions when they appear to be genuine attempts to reach and hear the Divine. We continue to have much further to go. And, for this, I feel privileged and proud.