The day is short, the work is much...

An odd joke has made the rounds on the Internet, and (I think surprisingly), is even available on the Web sites of certain congregations (you may have seen it here):

The Prefect Rabbi

The results of a computerized survey indicate the perfect Rabbi preaches exactly fifteen minutes. He condemns sins but never upsets anyone. He works from 8:00am until midnight and is also a janitor. He makes $50 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives about $50 weekly to the poor. He is 28 years old and has preached 30 years. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens. The perfect Rabbi smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes 15 calls daily to congregation families, shut-ins and the hospitalized, and is always in his office when needed.

If your Rabbi does not measure up, simply send this letter to six other synagogues that are tired of their Rabbi, too. Then bundle up your Rabbi and send him to the synagogue on the top of the list. In one week, you will receive 1,643 Rabbis and one of them will be perfect. Have faith in this procedure.

One congregation broke the chain and got its old Rabbi back in less than three weeks.

Your servant,

This is an odd contrast with the words of Rabbi Israel Salanter (as they appear on the wall of the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv):

A Rabbi who does not cause controversy is no Rabbi and a Rabbi who is afraid of controversy is not fully human.

Now, I have a life contract, so I'm not terribly concerned about your trying to find such a rabbi for Etz Chaim... after all, during Rosh haShannah morning services (and also this morning) the ratio of rabbis (3) to non-rabbis (40) in this congregation is higher than in any congregation I've ever seen (outside of those in Yeshivot).

So, It's not the rabbi about which I want to speak about this morning, it's our thoughts about perfection. Six years ago I spoke to you at this time about how our task is to learn how to "strike the balance between our own goal of perfection and the realization that we are finite beings who will never achieve the completeness for which we strive."

It's time to pick up that thread again.

Until recently I had as part of my "e-signature" a saying from Rabbi Tarfon of Pirkei Avot fame:

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I left the statement incomplete. Those who knew the entire statement would be able to complete it themselves and appreciate it, those who did not would get the idea that I had much to do and not much time in which to accomplish it... and that was OK by me. But, R. Tarfon continued: "... the laborers are slothful. It is not incumbent upon you to finish the job, however, neither are you free from doing all you can to complete it." Carly may know the phrase from the song frequently sung at camp:

Lo alecha ha m'lachah ligmore, lo alecha ligmore

V'lo ata ben jorin l'hibatel mimenu...

V'lo ata ben jorin...

What is R. Tarfon getting at here? He knows that many of us procrastinate, are distracted, and due to all kinds of external reasons may never complete our life's task. He has a tremendous amount of compassion for us and understands that we may not achieve what we hope for. Yet, we should not (according to R. Tarfon) denigrate our efforts because of that... so long as (!) we don't simply give up on the matter altogether and spend our time in frivolous pursuits saying: "I know I can't complete it, so I won't even try."

This understanding come up over and over in Jewish thought.

The great Hassidic rabbi, Shneur Zalman, the founder of ChaBaD Hassidism, was imprisoned (for some reason not relevant to our discussion today) in St. Petersburg during the 18th century. He was visited there by the chief of police. They conversed. The chief of police asked the rabbi about a biblical passage which had bothered him. "Why did God, God who is all knowing, ask Adam: 'Where are you Adam?' God knew Adam was in the Garden of Eden!"

Rabbi Zalman replied, "In every generation God calls out to everyone to each of us: 'Where are you? What have you accomplished? How far have you gotten in this world? How far along are you'"

Yet another Hassidic story tells us that before his death Rabbi Zusya said, "In the world to come, they will not ask me: 'Why were you not Moses' they will ask me: 'Why were you not Zusya?'" How many of us try to become people other than ourselves, set for ourselves goals based on images of masculinity or beauty that are external and modeled by others?

People are often perplexed by the accounts of the biblical heroes, all of whom are imperfect. In order to save his life, Abraham hides the fact that Sarah is his wife. He easily accepts Sarah's demand that he expel Hagar and Ishamel (whose birth was caused by Sarah's own encouragement)! Isaac easily goes along with his father's intention to sacrifice him and plays along with his own son Jacob's ruse of getting the paternal blessing. On and on. The answer, of course, is that the biblical characters are depicted as fully human (like you and I) not angels, or "gods."

No one expects us to be perfect. Sometimes we are confused by the English translations of Biblical texts. For example, in Genesis (17:1) it appears as though God commands Abraham to be perfect. The text reads: "Walk before me and be perfect." However, the Hebrew reads "hitalekh lifanai ve'heyeh tamim." The Hebrew "tam" is not generally used to imply "perfect" but "innocent, simple, pure, whole-hearted, complete." A more accurate interpretation would be "Walk before me and be whole." And that cannot be a command, but an expression of what will happen: "if you (Abraham, or any one of us) would walk in God's ways, we would be complete."

One of the kids' favorite books that I'd read to them in Hebrew was by Shel Silverstein, "The Missing Piece Meets the Big O." In it a little wedge-shaped piece imagines that it is the missing piece of some other "thing." That it needs to fit into another being in order to be whole and move in the world. Some fit, but can't move, others have too many chunks missing from them.... Eventually the "Missing Piece" learns that it can reshape itself -- round its corners -- and is actually whole and able to move in the world.

We often feel that we are broken and unable to move. The brokenness is understandable and real, but, what we do with our broken selves depends on us. Ernest Hemingway said, "Life breaks all of us, yet many of us are strong in the broken place." Novelists, like Hemingway, tell stories with beginnings, middles and ends... a clear trajectory that the writer constructs to make sure the story has meaning. But our lives are lived in the flow of history with many overlapping beginnings, middles and endings and no single trajectory. We have to find and make the meaning for our own lives.

The story is told of a king who had a wonderful jewel. He would gaze on it often, wondering at its beauty. One day, something startled him and he dropped the jewel causing it to fall. As he picked it up from the hard stone floor the king noticed that the jewel now had a deep crack in it. He sent messengers out to find a craftsman who could repair it, but, no one came forward. Finally after a very long search he found an old jeweler who said he could repair the jewel, but, that the king would have to promise to give him free reign in his work. With no other options, the king assented. The old craftsman set up his workshop and worked continuously for many days (taking time off for Shabbat). Finally he emerged and showed the king the jewel. There in the jewel, the old man had worked the lines of the crack into the pattern of an exquisite flower that appeared deep inside the precious stone. The king gasped and realized that the crack itself had led to the jewel becoming even more precious.

Yet another story of a crack.

This one was of a simple man who walked every day from his home to the stream with a pole across his broad shoulders and two buckets hanging one from each side. He walked down to the stream, filled the two buckets and walked back up to his house and there emptied the buckets into a large basin from which the family drew water through the day. However, one of the buckets had a crack in it and every day the man had only one and a half buckets of water to pour into the basin. Day after day, this went on. Eventually - late at night after everyone had fallen asleep - the cracked bucket spoke to the man: "I am embarrassed that every day I only bring half the amount of water needed for the basin. Please get rid of me and get a new, whole, unbroken bucket." The next morning the man took his buckets down to the stream. As he did, he spoke to the cracked bucket. "Why do you feel so bad about yourself? Do you see this path we walk every day? One side of it has flowers growing along it, the other side is barren. I knew about your crack -- what you have considered a flaw. Because of your crack, I planted flowers along that side of the path from which you hang. Every day, as I walked back from the stream you have watered these flowers... flowers that we have cut to beautify our simple home. If you did not have a crack, or, if I was to get rid of you and get another bucket without a crack I would need to make special arrangements to water our flowers. I appreciate you because of your crack."

Jewish tradition recognizes that our brokenness is a normal part of life. The word Jeit which we too often translate as "sin" really means "to miss the mark" as in target practice. Failure may be universal, but it is not a permanent condition. At Yom Kippur we have moments to recognize our failures and strength to evaluate, to grow from our errors. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "We all are failures; at least one day a year we should recognize it."

At Yom Kippur we stand in judgement of ourselves and ask these questions. We consider our progress, evaluate our position. We ponder this year and the years past... the successes, the failures... the cracks in our characters. May we walk before God knowing that we can come nearer to the wholeness of the creation we are intended to become.


Lo alecha ha m'lachah ligmore, lo alecha ligmore

V'lo ata ben jorin l'hibatel mimenu...

V'lo ata ben jorin...

It is not incumbent upon you to finish the job, however, neither are you free from doing all you can to complete it.

©Mark Hurvitz