Aspiring to Perfection and Embracing Brokenness

A Reflection from Avi West, Master Teacher of Federation’s Jewish Education Department

illustration of the ten commandments

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is marked with penitential prayers and fasting, all focused on repairing our relationship with our fellow human beings and with our Creator. We gather to publicly acknowledge our failings and pledge to be better in the coming year. But here is an interesting issue: after years of this pattern of falling short and pledging to do better, is it hypocritical to go through this process, knowing we as humans will continue to “miss the mark” and may never reach perfection?

The date for Yom Kippur is mentioned in the Torah in the story of two of Aaron’s sons who desecrate the sanctuary in the wilderness during their priestly service. Aaron, as High Priest, was commanded to go through a ritual cleansing of the sanctuary, including sin offerings and the transference of sins to a “scapegoat” sent into the wilderness. This purging of sin was then instituted as an annual holy day. Leviticus 16 records:

“And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month Tishrei, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the LORD. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time. This shall be to you a law for all time: to make atonement for the Israelites for all their sins once a year.”

But let’s look at the full chronology pieced together from the narratives in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy to get a fuller picture of Yom Kippur’s significance. At Shavuot (the 6th day of the 3rd Jewish month, Sivan), Moshe went up to Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the covenant. He was there for forty days and on the fortieth day, he returned with the tablets to find the Israelites worshiping the golden calf. Disappointed in these action of his people, Moshe smashes the tablets. For forty days afterwards, Moshe prays to God for forgiveness. On the first of Elul, Moshe is instructed to return to the mountain to receive a new set of tablets. He descends forty days later, on the tenth of Tishrei with the new Tablets—a sign that God has forgiven the Israelites’ sin and the day that would be kept forever as a day of Kippurim, a day for atonement, pardon, and forgiveness.

The new tablets were placed in the ark. But what happened to the broken tablets? Moshe recalls what unfolded in one of his final speeches in Deuteronomy 10:1, “Thereupon the Lord said to me, “Carve out two tablets of stone like the first and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood. I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark.”

Our remarkable tradition sets us up for learning a few incredible lessons. First, in the Talmud Berachot 8b, “Even the old man who has forgotten his learning must be treated tenderly, for were not the broken tablets placed in the Ark of the Covenant side by side with the whole ones?”

Second, the Hassidic Masters understood shevirah, brokenness, as a powerful tool for human growth. The Kotzker Rebbe reminds us, especially at this season, that, “Nothing is more whole than a broken heart.” Dr. Erica Brown, in her commentary on this quote, notes, “Many experiences in life try to break us: illness, loneliness, the death of loved ones, insecurity, loss. But such experiences also make us more whole as human beings. They expand our range of consciousness and compassion. They enlarge our capacity for inclusion. They make us stronger, and help us reach out to others with greater empathy and concern. When we acknowledge that we are broken, we enter a universe where we are not measured by our perfection, but by our willingness to repair ourselves and the world. We stop judging others only when we can recognize our own inadequacies.”

Leonard Cohen was right! In his great psalm/song Anthem he chants, “Forget your perfect offering… There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Susan Goldberg offers us this commentary: “We can let go of striving for an illusion of perfection and embrace our brokenness. It is not a distraction from the path; it is the spiritual path of our everyday lives… When we embrace our brokenness and do the work to let the light in, this is our offering. Not perfect, but beautiful.”

We are not off the hook with our search for teshuva, a return to a better path, or our obligation to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged. But we must change the translation of Tikkun Olam from perfecting the world to repairing the world. And we must realize that the process begins with Tikkun Atzmi, repairing ourselves.

Christina Cruz, Psy.D, a life coach who specializes in perfectionism, anxiety, depression and body image, reminds parents of the dark side of perfectionism. “Some kids are taught that mistakes are terrible. That is, their parents criticize them anytime they mess up, which teaches their kids that “it is important to never make a mistake, and it is safer to be perfect.” We should remember those broken tablets in the ark, used as an exemplar by our tradition to make our mistakes opportunities for growth and wholeness.

What can we take from all this as we go into Yom Kippur? Perhaps we can call it the Day of At-ONE-Ment. We can recognize that when we missed the mark once again in the past year, it may be due to our state of brokenness. From an understanding of our shared human inadequacies we can try to honestly repair any damage done that has distanced us from others and from our Creator. But at the same time, we do this not to obsess over perfection, rather to be honest in seeking ONENESS, or shlaymut (from the Hebrew shalom and shalaym).

These Days of Awe offer us time to consider how we can be the best individuals and communities we can be. What are we to do in seeking perfection if it is unattainable? In the words of the great motivator, Coach Vince Lombardi, one of his greatest pieces of advice for the game of life is to balance high standards with reality. He insisted that, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”