Friday, October 7, 2016

Yom Kippur: On Perfection and Imperfection

Perfection. We keep waiting to become perfect. In some future time -- we imagine -- we will have all our issues figured out and our priorities clear and our lives perfectly organized and calibrated and we will understand and act in a balanced righteous generous patient way all of the time.

Around this time of year each year, I am confronted by the fact that once again I have fallen short of this goal of perfection. My son, Medad, taught me a beautiful interpretation of the ram in the story of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. The ram is said to be caught in the thicket. He keeps trying to get loose but gets caught again. This is like us and our habitual problems and sins; we are caught in them; we keep trying to get out and are still caught. Each year on Yom Kippur we discover anew that we are still caught.

It’s not that we don’t make progress from year to year. Hopefully we do make some progress. But we never do get to perfection. We are never really free of all the thickets.

The wonder of Yom Kippur is that we are told we can approach God anyway. Nobody comes to Yom Kippur as spiritually clean as their white clothes. We give ourselves permission at the start to pray with sinners, not just those others around us who are sinners, but also ourselves. We give ourselves permission to be imperfect. To be imperfect but to still stand and pray in the presence of God.

Don’t think you’re not good enough to speak to God, to connect. Sometimes I think that does stop us from praying, from really opening our hearts, that fear of unworthiness. No, we are told. God loves us in all our imperfections. Yom Kippur is really a celebration of divine love, of forgiving, merciful divine love, of a God who knows the worst about us and loves us anyway. Is there any love greater than that? To love us in all our imperfection?

The one thing God demands of us is a broken heart. He is, above all, rachmana de’anei letiverei liba, the Merciful One who answers the broken-hearted. Our is not the God of the perfect, but the God of the broken. What we have to offer God is not a perfect slate, but a broken heart, a heart that yearns, oh, how it years, to do better, but is, like the ram, still caught in the thicket.

All year we have the illusion of control. This time of year breaks down that illusion and we finally have to admit that in many respects we are not in control; whether we live or we die, we remind ourselves, is ultimately not in our hands. And, though we work hard to be better, on some level, in the final hour, we also ask God for help in this area. We admit that we need help, that the constant struggle to better ourselves has left us broken-hearted and despairing. We fall prostrate before God and admit imperfection and failure and despair, and it is out of this broken-heartedness that we emerge anew, reconnected to God, embraced by love and compassion, and ready to start the year and try again.