Rabbi Dennis J. Eisner
Erev Yom Kippur 5777
October 11, 2016

 Perfectly Imperfect

A man walks out to the street and catches a taxi just going by. He gets into the taxi, and the cabbie says, "Perfect timing. You're just like Frank."

Passenger asks: "Who?"

Cabbie says: "Frank Feldman. He's a guy who did everything right all the time. Like my coming along when you needed a cab, things like that happened to Frank Feldman every single day."

Passenger: "There are always a few clouds over everybody."

Cabbie: "Not Frank Feldman. He was a terrific athlete. He could have won the Grand Slam at tennis. He could golf with the pros. He sang like an opera baritone and danced like a Broadway star and you should have heard him play the piano. He was an amazing guy."

The passenger says: “Sounds like he was something really special.”

And the cabbie replies: "There's more. He had a memory like a computer. He remembered everybody's birthday. He knew all about wine, which foods to order and which fork to eat them with. He could fix anything. Not like me. I change a fuse, and the whole street blacks out. But Frank Feldman, could do everything right."

Passenger: "Wow, some guy then."

Cabbie: "He always knew the quickest way to go in traffic and avoid traffic jams. Not like me, I always seem to get stuck in them. But Frank Feldman, he never made a mistake. He never forgot his wife’s birthday or their anniversary. And Frank really knew how to dress; his clothing was always immaculate and his shoes were highly polished too. He was the perfect man! He never made a mistake. No one could ever measure up to Frank Feldman."

Passenger exclaimed: "Frank was an amazing fellow. How did you meet him?"

The Cabbie responds: "Well, I never actually met Frank. He died and I married his wife."

It’s hard to live up to the Frank Feldmans of the world. It’s hard to be perfect. Trust me, I know—not because I am perfect—but like many of you, I have been conditioned to think perfection is desirable and attainable.

Even as I was writing these words I felt like I was striving to write the perfect sermon.

Merriam‑Webster defines perfection in the following way:
1. Perfection is the quality or state of being perfect:
a: freedom from fault or defect: flawlessness
b: maturity
c: the quality or state of being saintly.

Certainly, on Yom Kippur we are not striving to be saintly. However, on this evening where we chant the haunting melody of Kol Nidre—where we stand publicly and admit our shortcomings—we may also be suffering from this desire or need to be like Frank Feldman to be perfect?

Where does this come from?

A little girl asked her mother, "How did the human race appear?" The mother answered, "God made Adam and Eve and they had children and this was how all humankind was made."

Two days later the girl asked her father the same question. The father answered, "Many years ago there were monkeys from which the human race evolved."

The confused girl returned to her mother and said, "Mom, how is it possible that you told me that the human race was created by God, and Dad said the human race evolved from monkeys?"

The mother replied, "Well, dear, it is very simple: I told you about my side of the family and your father told you about his."

On Rosh Hashanah, on Simchat Torah, and the Shabbat following Simchat Torah we read our story about how God creates the heavens and the earth along with land and sea, animals and plants, and of course human beings. The story goes on to teach us that these humans, Adam and Eve, lived in the Garden of Eden. The garden was this perfect place—so perfect in fact that you didn’t even need clothes.

I think it is fair to say that our creation story, which we just celebrated on Rosh Hashanah, plays a significant role in our perception that perfection is desirable and may be even attainable.

Or does it?  

Each Shabbat, at 10:15 AM I meet with the b’nai mitzvah family in my office in order to help set the tone for that morning’s service.

Using this (hold up Tanach) very large and heavy Hebrew Bible—I place it in front of the bar or bat mitzvah and I ask this simple question, “How much of this book—how much of our story—our tradition, is about perfection?”

Quizzically they ponder the question while their parents, siblings and grandparents look on—and they guess. Some say a lot, others say none. The bat mitzvah girl or the bar mitzvah boy who is inclined mathematically may give me a percentage like 50% or 10%?

That’s when I let them know they are all wrong. The fact is it is closer to none then to 10%. It is such a small part of our story that it’s almost impossible to quantify.

The notion of perfection is such a minute part of our story that it ends quickly when Eve eats from the forbidden tree, the tree of knowledge, even though she was told not to. From that point on the story of our people, the story of our lives, is no longer centered on this idyllic garden of perfection but rather in the real world of imperfection.  

My reasoning behind this teaching on Shabbat morning is to help our b’nai mitzvah students, their families, and me understand that perfection is not what we are looking for. What I want from them and for them, their families and me, is to give it our all. I want each of us, no matter what role we play to be present, to try our best to be connected to our words, our prayers, our music and our people.

This brings us to tonight, to this moment in our lives because throughout these Yamim Noraim, these Ten Days of Awe, we are told that we ought to reflect as deeply as possible and in the most candid way to dig as deeply as we can into the emotional, spiritual and challenging stories of our own lives. 

These days are designed for us so we can search for meaning, so we can face up to the less optimal choices we have made over the past year and pledge ourselves to the healthier choices we hope to make in the year ahead.

These days are completely designed to encourage us to grapple with our imperfections but nowhere during these Days of Awe, not in our liturgy, not in our Torah stories, not in our music are we—except maybe in our minds—asked to be perfect.

Our Torah teaches us that Moses ascends the mountain of God amidst the cloud that has enveloped its peak. Exhausted from leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses climbs and climbs until he reaches the spot where he is to encounter God.

As the story goes, it is in this sacred place that God reveals our Torah and all of its traditions to Moses. It is in this sacred place Moses receives the original tablets, the Ten Commandments. Following this revelatory experience, Moses is forever changed as he descends the mountain of God carrying the weight of the tablets both literally and figuratively down to the people.

Carrying all of this upon his shoulders Moses makes his way down the path and as he rounds the final curve his gaze realizes the Israelites are rejoicing, dancing, and celebrating—with “ the Golden Calf.” 

Astonished by their actions, stunned by their lack of faith and furious that the people have already broken the first commandment, Moses smashes the tablet in a fit of anger and condemns the people. Moses is furious, God is furious, and the people are ashamed.

Later in Torah we read in the both books of Exodus and Deuteronomy that God instructs Moses to ascend the mountain one more time, to carve out two tablets of stone like the first and make a sacred ark of wood to carry the Ten Commandments. God is very specific in commanding Moses to inscribe on the new tablets the exact commandments that were on the first tablets he smashed.

God goes further and commands Moses to deposit them in the Ark of the Covenant.”[1]

First the people lose faith and immediately turn back to the ways of Egypt so soon after tasting freedom. Then the great Prophet, Moses, yields to his evil inclination his yetzer ra—to his imperfect self—and allows his temper to overtake him and he smashes the first set of tablets which were made by the hand of God.

For their actions the Israelites are punished but not destroyed. The Israelites pay the consequences for their action but ultimately the generations that follow are able to enter the Land as God had promised. Moses ultimately gets punished for losing his temper and all of this occurs in order that God will command Moses to climb the mountain once again and carve a second set of tablets.

As with all of our texts we must now ask ourselves why? Why do we have a story of two sets of tablets—one broken and now one whole? What happened to the first set of tablets?

The Talmud answers: The broken tablets were placed in the “Holy Ark” along with the second, intact set.[2]

Our Rabbis teach that they were put in the most sacred place, in the Aaron Hakodesh, the “Holy Ark.”

Ultimately, after all of this drama we have—together in the Ark of the Covenant the complete set of the Ten Commandments—the broken alongside the whole.

So now we ask more questions. Why do the broken pieces remain precious? If they represent the Jewish people disregarding the covenant with God, would we not wish to simply forget about them? Why do we place them in the Ark of the Covenant?

Relationships between objects that are broken and objects that are whole are a large part of our tradition.

Just last week we heard the long whole blasts of tekia together with broken notes of shevarim and t’rua. In six months we will begin our seders by breaking a whole piece of matzah into two and this coming year we all hope to be lucky enough to rejoice with bride and groom as they shatter a perfectly intact glass into hundreds of shards. 

It is clear to me that our tradition has never wanted us to exist in a state of perfection but rather to coexist in a world where wholeness sits side by side with brokenness and imperfection. Nowhere is this more evident than the moment when God, who was so profoundly submersed in fury and disappointment in the Israelites for worshiping the Golden Calf, still has the ability to proclaim the following:

God says:

The Eternal! The Eternal! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”[3]

Clearly God and our tradition come to understand that people are fallible. And in this profound admission God faces a choice.

Do I destroy the people because of their imperfections? Or do I imbue them with the ability to become better knowing that they will never be perfect?

Let’s face it; the story of our people is filled with complexities and nuances. The story is filled with imperfect people and an imperfect God. And I have to believe or should I say I want to believe this all by design.

By design we are perfectly imperfect.

At the beginning of this sermon I read the definition of the word perfection from the Miriam Webster Dictionary. Now I want to read you the definition from the Urban Dictionary.

The Urban Dictionary defines the word perfection as follows: Perfection is an impossibility, something unattainable, something that cannot be reached—ever!

If something were perfect, then that would mean that they were different from everyone else making them imperfect.

Yes, these days are designed to force ourselves into asking the hard questions that hopefully provide us with the answers needed to help us to grow and change our lives for the better. But these days are not designed to make us perfect.

With that let me be crystal clear: The notion of being imperfect is not our excuse to behave badly. Being imperfect does not absolve us from being rude, unfriendly, hot-tempered, unfaithful, untrustworthy, misogynistic, racist, egotistical, obnoxious, narcissistic, xenophobic—the alphabet of woes goes on.

So tonight and tomorrow as we recite the words of Kol Nidre (vows), Vidui (confession), Al Cheit (sins) and Avinu Malkeinu (supplication) and tomorrow we add the intense words of the Unataneh Tokef (acknowledging God’s power) we must accept our imperfection. 

We do not have to fool ourselves into believing that we must live up to the fairy tale of the Frank Feldmans in the world. Nor are we taught that the Garden of Eden is our reality.

Instead we publicly beat our chest reminding us that we have the God-given ability to become better, to become healthier, to become kinder, to become more compassionate.

We stand in front of our congregation, our Torah, and our God, pledging to work as hard as we possibly can, to be the best individuals, to be the best community to be a “Light Unto the Nations.”

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

May this be a meaningful time in our lives as we struggle to be perfectly imperfect.

Amen v’amen.

[1] Exodus 34:1-4 and Deuteronomy 10:1-2

[2] Talmud Bava Batra 14b

[3] Exodus 34:6-7