Perfection is Imperfect
Shabbat Parshat Emor
May 9th, 2009- 14 Iyar 5769
I am a big fan of therapy, a psychologist, a LCSW, a psychiatrist I don’t discriminate – don’t laugh I actually mean it. I am teased by friends for a mantra I have about this feeling…if everyone were in therapy the world would be a much happier and more peaceful place to live. So when HBO last season began to feature a new show called In Treatment I was well, excited – therapy and television, two of my favorite things what could be better? In fact the show is based on a remarkably successful Israeli television show B’tepool – loosely translated as In Treatment. The show, both the Israeli and the American version, which is now in its second season feature a therapist as the main character and each episode bears witness to a single therapy session, with one patient. Most people in talking about the show love to discuss the patients- their sadness, their struggle, their pathology anything about them but the most fascinating element to the show is the therapist himself played by the actor Gabriel Byrne. His character development is particularly compelling because he is a mess – his life is a mess, his psychology is complex and his therapeutic model certainly is impacted and profoundly effected by his imperfection. This flawed nature, this complicated life makes the viewer hang on every word he says, every question he asks and piece of advice he offers – in fact it is what makes him a very good therapist. A therapist who actually helps people, whose patient return because he is even when it is painful helping them deeply explore and struggle with their own flawed humanity. Even though for television the drama is created by having him cross some inappropriate boundaries or make questionable decisions which shall we say a bit problematic, his patients and the viewers are drawn to him because of his imperfection, because he is real, because he is in the end a human being who can live in the moment with the person on his couch, who can be with you when you suffer and when you triumph.
Our torah portion this morning details many basics of Jewish law – including the law of Eternal light in the sanctuary, the Calendric listing of holiday observance and the requirements for Kohanim, the priests, to be fit to officiate in the temple sacrificial ritual and to take part in the sacred offerings. We often ignore these rules and regulations because they simple do not seem to matter anymore – do not impact our daily religious life in non-temple based Judaism. However, if we look closely at the details of the laws concerning the priests we find an immense quantity and quality of guidance as to how to live out our daily existence as people of faith.
We are told in the parasha that just like the animals that were offered had to be perfect, so too, the priest himself had to be unblemished. The priest’s worthiness to serve the people required a high bar of perfection and ritual purity – the smallest blemish or life mistake would render him unfit from service in the Temple. We might find it problematic that the Kohanim (priests) had to be “perfect.” Doesn’t it contradict other teachings in the Torah the concepts of btzelem elohim, being created in God’s image or commands of compassion and respect for the deaf and blind? But here we are instructed that anyone with a disability is disqualified, that anyone with a blemish, a scar, a broken bone is unfit to serve the people before God. How do we make sense of this? The priests can't have real life experiences like death or divorce, disability or scars? Isn’t real life experience – suffering, pain, tragedy and triumph what make great leaders? Don’t we want those who serve the community, the messengers to God on our behalf to have experienced life in its fullest?
Maimonides, the prolific medieval Jewish philosopher and scholar explains in the Guide for the Perplexed (3:45) suggests the sanctuary and the Temple were to be revered and respected, and the masses would only find acceptable beautiful, handsome, perfect people with nice clothes. So if the priest wasn’t perfect, the people might think that the Temple and God might not be perfect, either.
We might think to ourselves this is ridiculous, but is it really so different than today? We expect our leaders, our politicians, our candidates, our rabbis to be perfect. We look for their flaws, we analyze their every word, their clothes, their relationships, and if, God forbid, their blemish is too great, than they, like the priests, are disqualified from service. But who is perfect? Who hasn’t touched death or divorce? Who does not have a defect of some sort? It’s a wonder that any priests were able to serve! And they did not even have plastic surgery or PR firms back then!
With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the sacrificial cult gave way to rabbinic Judaism. And the rabbis valued leaders for their imperfection! The rabbis say in the Talmud: “One should not appoint anyone as leader of a community, unless he carries a basket of bugs around his neck.” What does that mean? Contact with impure creatures made a person impure. Bugs: It’s the same word in our parasha for what renders a priest impure. The rabbis wanted leaders who wore their flaws around their necks. That’s quite different than expecting the priests, leaders or rabbis to be perfect.
There is a different model which is linked to this concept of owning our shortcomings as a way to true lead people- one that is much more realistic and powerful. In the Talmud the rabbis tell a story about the Messiah: one rabbi, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, is meditating, and he has a mystical experience in which he encounters the prophet Elijah. He asks Elijah: How will we know who the Messiah is? Elijah’s answer: he will be sitting at the gates of the city, among the poor and the sick, untying and tying the bandages of his own wounds.
Humans are not perfect, the world is not perfect, and so the Messiah can only be someone who himself is wounded, blemished, in touch with the brokenness of the world. And the messiah unlike the priest is a descendant of King David, whose lineage is created by one sex scandal after another. The rabbis’ point is very simple – perfection, is no longer our goal– and perhaps it never should have been. We are flawed as an inherent quality of our humanity. We make mistakes – we err, we make decisions that hurt people and sometimes we do it more than once. We have complex feelings that cause our actions to be complicated. The priest had to create a façade that the world is perfect, but the Messiah – the person who would bring about redemption for the people must personally know imperfection so that he can bring healing and redemption to a broken world.
What does this mean in our lives? We like to speak and share publicly the perfect: the perfect scenery, our perfect homes, our perfect cars, our perfect children who get in to perfect schools. But our reality is perhaps far from perfect? I know mine is certainly not perfect and I don’t think I would make much of a rabbi if I was perfect or even trying to be. You see the priest is not our model for behavior – it is the Messiah that we should model ourselves after – whether we believing in a messianic redemption or we pray for the mashiach it is the rabbinic model which reflects our true understanding of the world and being Jewish in it. The rabbis imagined the imperfect Messiah, the wounded and bandaged Messiah, because of the hope that redemption can come out of brokenness, not out of perfection. We each have blemishes and challenges, along with beauty and remarkable courage, and by facing the complexities, we can do the real work that leads to messianic redemption.
There was a time when perhaps we expected the Kohanim to be perfect because that allowed us to believe that the world must be perfect, too. But we learned that the world is not perfect and neither are we, neither is my life nor is yours. And God forbid one would read this parasha and conclude that our flaws render us unfit for divine service. Actually, it is the opposite: it is acknowledging our imperfections, which allows us to do divine service, that is, the work of healing and redemption. So like the psychologist character in that silly television show our greatest strength, the magnetic power to draw people in and help others, repair the world and live a life filled with Torah and light is the imperfections which makes us real and make us human. God demands human service not Divine perfection. Shabbat Shalom.