Peter J. Rubinstein | October 4, 2003
As a child, I loved new things and did all I could to keep them perfect. Every year, my mother bought me new patent leather Mary Jane shoes for the Holidays. When I wore them, I stepped gingerly, hoping to keep the shiny leather in its pristine condition. But no matter how careful I was, after a wearing or two, they were marred by a scuff or a scratch. Every day, on my way to school, I carried my lunch carefully, hoping to remove a whole cookie from my brown paper bag. But almost every day it broke. Many times my perfectly round, chocolate chip cookie was mostly pieces and crumbs.
I quickly learned that nothing in life is perfect. It took me longer to learn that we can’t expect perfection from ourselves, either.
This is the time of the year when we confront - head on - the fact of our imperfection. This special Shabbat, Shabbat Shuva (literally, Sabbath of Turning), falls during the most sacred days of our Jewish year - the Ten Days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashana and conclude with Yom Kippur. This is the time Jewish tradition sets aside for teshuva - repentance. We are supposed to devote ourselves to a careful examination of who we are, so that we can gain awareness of the ways we have failed - failed others, failed our selves, and failed God. This introspection leads to regret, remorse and - if possible - retribution. Ultimately, we are supposed to turn away from our past selves and turn toward our better selves; to act differently in the coming new year. We are each meant to become a new and improved version of who we were before.
Even if we don’t make complete repentance, our liturgy gives us permission to cast ourselves upon God’s mercies and ask for forgiveness. Until Yom Kippur, we are given the burden of changing our ways. When we arrive at Yom Kippur, and see that we have not been able to do so fully, we turn to God and, through our prayers, ask God to bear this burden. We pray that God offers kappara - a complete cleansing of the slate, the opportunity to begin again. When we come to Neila, the final service of Yom Kippur, we offer our final prayers to heaven before the gates of heaven close, and emerge from our prayers as if reborn. We embark upon the year renewed, and perfect.
But as hard as we may try to retain this perfect state, we will not. We cannot. We know this, and - according to the text that Aaron and Zack read for us today - God knows this, too. Through the words of Ha-azinu, God has Moses remind the Israelites of their imperfect nature, using graphic - even frightening - language, which our Bnei Mitzvah read so well for us. Ha-azinu, an extended poem, contains the last words that God will speak to the Israelites through Moses before they enter the Promised Land. Moses warns the Israelites that in their future, they will turn to idolatry, betray God’s covenant, and will suffer disastrous consequences. Moses declares that God will punish Israel for its rebelliousness, but will limit the severity of that punishment. Ultimately, Israel will violate the covenant, they will repent, God will deliver them, and Israel will sing in celebration of that atonement and redemption. And so the cycle will continue: sin, repentance, atonement, renewal. And again: sin, repentance, atonement, renewal.
So why bother? Why should we repent and seek atonement if we will fail again? Hopefully, every time we go through the cycle of sin, repentance, atonement and renewal, we will emerge from the process better and better human beings. Sinning, but sinning less. Repenting again and again, but with greater insight and intention.
God could have had Moses speak differently to the Israelites before they made the transition from the desert into the Land of Milk and Honey. Moses could have bolstered their confidence, like a football coach might do for his team before they take the field. He could have described the beauty of the land that lay ahead. He could have let them know that he believed in them and their ability to make him proud. He could have reassured them, urging them to believe in themselves. Instead, God has Moses let them know that soon after they enter their new homeland, they will commit some of the worst sins possible - turning away from God and turning instead, toward idols.
God does not expect perfection, because God created us with the yetzer ha-tov - the urge toward goodness - and the yetzer ha-ra - the urge toward evil. The fact of our flawed humanity inspires us to always move forward. The fact of our imperfection propels us to push ourselves toward improvement. Our imperfect nature provides us with an impetus for growth, for learning and discovery. God blessed us with imperfection - with the opportunity to make mistakes and then learn from them.
A few days from now, we will pray the last words of the Yom Kippur Neila service and emerge renewed. Clean of sin. Hopefully, this temporary state of perfection will last past the final shofar blast. Hopefully, in our rush to get home and eat, we won’t push our way to the door. Or walk home, gossiping about what someone was wearing. Hopefully, we’ll get through the night without snapping at our children, or speaking shortly to our spouse. But even if we make it through to the next morning, or even to the next evening clear of mistakes or failings, chances are, pretty soon after our slate has been wiped clean, we will have something new for which to repent. The message of our Torah portion is to accept this as a tool of self-improvement.
When we leave behind the Days of Awe and enter the new year aware of our imperfection, may we use this awareness to help us strive toward wholeness and a year of betterment.
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