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Celebrating Our Imperfections

by Rabbi James Prosnit 

Yom Kippur Afternoon 2016/5777                                                                           

It’s not what you’re expecting.  No Trump.  Perhaps even more surprising to some of you — no baseball.  It’s actually basketball.

Earlier this year Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy got himself in trouble when he made some comments about our UConn women’s Basketball team. For those living under a rock, or just to remind you, the Lady Huskies had just completed another dominant season.  38 wins; no loses.  In fact, over multiple seasons they had won 75 games in a row. Seniors, Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck had become the only players in NCAA basketball history, men or women, to win titles each of their four years in college. Their excellence and perfection had been nothing short of amazing.

And then Dan Shaughnessy weighed in.

It’s not because they win championships every year. We love dynasties.

It’s not because they are female athletes. We love women’s sports

 It’s the margins of these victories. The defending champion University of Connecticut women’s basketball team is virtually never tested. They seem to win all their games by 40 points. This is … not good for the promotion of women’s basketball as part of our national sports landscape.

Competition is why we watch sports. Who is going to win? Without that drama, sports would be no different from the theater, ballet, or symphony. The UConn women are so good they have stripped their sport of all drama and competition and made it similar to performance art.

This is not good for the game?[1]

Now, certainly many took Shaughnessy to task – especially as you might guess Geno Auriemma.  Personally, I happen to think that the Women Huskies have been very good for the game.  If not for them –I don’t think many people in this state or nationwide would have paid any attention at all.

But, still, I have to admit, Shaughnessy had a point. The Women’s tournament last year, was a foregone conclusion. The Men’s tournament on the other hand if we remember back was thrilling. 

It seems that perfection, just isn’t as interesting as imperfection.  And while I understand the pursuit of excellence on the basketball court is not the same as quality of character – it does provide sermonic possibilities for this most sacred of nights.

Judaism teaches us that not only is perfection both unattainable and untenable – it is also idolatrous.  We identify God as perfection, so any aspiration or expectation to reach such a level is dangerously misguided.   Imperfection marks the very natural human condition and those who hold themselves accountable to an expectation of perfection will inevitably fall victim to their own impractical standards.

The ancient Greeks had an opposite view.  Not only did their statues represent perfection, but they believed moral perfection was achievable, too.  Aristotle for example felt that a characteristic of good men was to do no wrong.  To Jews. Aristotle was overly optimistic.  We tend to be realistic. Yes, I could be perfect, if it weren’t for all my hang ups and character flaws.

And it’s not just the Greeks.  Christianity, Islam and Buddhism each highlight the unblemished lives of Jesus, Muhammed and Buddha.  Judaism lacks any such paradigm of perfection.  Abraham kicks out one of his sons and almost kills the other.  Moses kills a man in cold blood and is later banned from entering the Promised Land due to his public display of anger.  Aaron builds the golden calf.  David sins with Bathsheba.  

The Torah offers a frank assessment of what life actually is: messy, haphazard and imperfect.  Or as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner would say, “There is no one in the Torah any of us would want our child to marry”.  

That’s why I for one love to read the stories over and over again.  Just like our ancestors, each of us is prone to error and misjudgment.  And on some levels that’s what makes us most interesting.  One of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs reminds us that –it is through the cracks; that the light gets in.[2]

But too man cracks weaken the foundation —– and that’s why we’re here tonight.  That’s what I think draws many to this service on this day.   We didn’t come to be scolded or condemned. Most of our cracks are not from acts of rebellion or depravity.  We came to be reassured that our imperfections, our misdeeds have not separated us from the people who care about us and they have not separated us from the love of God. While some might say their presence is to please parents departed or alive or just out of habit or obligation, I think a lot more is going on than just filial piety and social pressure. We want to putty up some of the cracks; seek wholeness – that after all is the meaning of the word shalom and we want to do so as part of a holy congregation.

Yom Kippur is our time to look in the mirror; to contend with whom we have become and dream again of who and what we’d like to be. We do this personally, taking a self-audit of our behaviors — what held me back this past year? What patterns were destructive? Where did I take up too much space? Too little? We do this in our relationships –who did I hurt? Who hurt me? Who have I neglected to see? Honor? Prioritize? Thank? And we do this more globally, looking at our families, our communities, our country, the Jewish people and the world. Goodness knows -imperfections abound.  At times it is hard to pick up a newspaper.  Another mass shooting; another police shooting, another act of terror or atrocity. Ma anu is the banner language of these holy days. What are we? Who are we? Who do we want to be? And, perhaps most importantly, what are we; what am I willing to do about it?

To be truest to myself I know I must reflect on the times I’ve been impatient with a colleague, too quick to rebut a well-placed critique from my wife or have been unable to hear or have been dismissive of the concerns on her mind. The times when I’ve waited to the last minute to get something done and not have been as prepared as I should have been.  My sermon on Rosh Hashanah was about being present; have I always practiced what I’ve preached.  Mark Twain once said, “to do good is noble; to tell others to do good, is also noble — and a hell of a lot easier.”  Have I condemned in others the faults I tolerate in myself?  Have I taken the easy way out or squandered the moral authority that my position as a rabbi has given to me, because of political concerns or the desire not to rock the boat?  Have I been too silent in the face of injustice in our community, when my speaking up may actually have had an impact.

Listing some personal imperfections is a good exercise. I encourage you to do the same. Because it is in the acknowledgement of the errors we make and the sins we commit that we grow and gain knowledge as to how to do better next time. 

But that leads to a central paradox. God willing we’ll all be back here in this same place next year at this time with the same prayers and the same book.  Some of you in the same seats. And we will likely be back with the same sins.  The date for next Yom Kippur is right there on the calendar, September 30th, 2017.  If we truly held that perfection was attainable we wouldn’t set a date to atone for our transgressions in advance.  But we know ourselves and accept that the lofty hopes which we announce each year may even be dashed before tomorrow’s break fast. Isn’t there something major league hypocritical about confession with our record for recidivism and repeating failures?

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev responded this way.  Each night before he went to bed he would review the events of the day that had passed.  And he would say of whatever was wrong in it, “I shall not do this again.”  Having looked at his deeds, and having said this, he would say to himself, “but so you promised last night and the night before.”  “Ah yes,” he would answer himself, “but tonight I am in earnest.”[3]

One less that Rabbi Levi might have adjusted his goals.  The reason I fail one might conclude is because I have set goals too high.  Lower the goals and I will not fail so often.  One more cynical might have abandoned the ideals of a better self altogether. This is my nature the cynic might say; I can expect nothing more. I am who I am; at least I can be at peace free from sin, because I have adapted my morality to fit the mistakes of my life.

But Rabbi Levi despite the perception that he was fooling himself had it right and took the only possible root. He confessed his misdeeds.  He kept a running tally and he looked at it again and again. And who knows one night he might go to bed, recount the events of the day and realize he had in fact made the change, he had broken the cycle.

This day teaches that only after acknowledging our failings can growth and change be possible. Not big radical transformations, gradual, but effective steps in redirecting ourselves.   Binges of saintliness are unlikely.  Crash diets all too often lead to greater weight gain. But an annual checkup or annual nutritional review can be very helpful in reminding us how to eat right.  Yom Kippur may not change our path, but it constantly reminds us of the right path to follow.

One of the frustrations that many of us are having with the current political campaign is that imperfect people are seeking to lead an imperfect nation and they’re spending the entire time railing about the imperfections of the other –rather than helping us focus on how we can heal divisions and become a more perfect union.

There are many classic Hebrew prayers that guide us so – but our new prayer book has some beautiful, important English readings.  After last years’ service several of you commented that this one lingered long.

Because I was angry
Because I was exhausted and on edge
Because I’d been drinking
Because I can be mean
Because I was reckless and selfish
Because I was worried about money
Because my marriage was dead
Because other people were doing it
Because I thought I could get away with it
Because I’m in pain
Because I wish I could undo it
Because I hurt him
Because I lost her trust
Because I let them down
Because I was self-destructive
Because I was foolish
Because I’m ashamed
Because that’s not who I am
Because that’s not who I want to be
Because I want to be forgiven
God bring down my walls of defensiveness and self-righteousness
Help me to stay in humility
Please- give me the strength to do what’s right[4]

One midrash suggests that knowing well how human nature would unfold, God created Yom Kippur even before God created humanity.  God knew from Adam’s first breath that we would need a path back.

This leads to a final dimension of Yom Kippur.  It works!  Once we’ve acknowledged our imperfections and owned up to our short comings we find forgiveness. We began this Service with the Divine assurance.  Salachti kidvarecha, I have pardoned in response to your plea.  It is theme of tonight and tomorrow and I think one of the hardest to grasp. If we ask, God forgives.  And if God forgives then surely we can forgive ourselves. Yom Kippur does not provide a license for misbehavior, but a recognition of human limitation and a vote of confidence in human potential.

Nothing reminds us of that more than the call of the shofar that we’ll hear tomorrow evening.  We’ve been quite spoiled here at B’nai Israel. I think you’ll agree that our ba’alei koreh (shofar blowers) are pretty close to perfection.  But if one year, they weren’t – you know that would be okay too.   

Rabbi Laura Metzger writes, The sounds of the shofar are odd, squawky, uneven.  They are echoes of an ancient world.

We’ve made technological advances to improve virtually every area of human life.  Yet we still use shofarot made as they always have been, from sheep or goat horns, minimally cleaned up, hollowed out, with a roughly cut mouthpiece.

She asks, “Why hasn’t someone made a better shofar?  One that would tekiyah with a pure and clear blast like a trumpet.  That would shevarim to break your heart like a blues saxophone.  That would teruah vibrating, well, like a vibraphone.  Why not a better shofar?  We could do it.

The bleating, blasting, burping shofar gives a most haunting sound.  It’s not pretty, no.  But it stirs us, perhaps because it is imperfect, as are we.[5]

But tomorrow — a clean slate. The only thing that stops us from accepting this is ourselves.  It can work. If we acknowledge our imperfection, recognize the possibilities and take this night; this day to heart.



[3] Steinberg, Milton; 1951, A Believing Jew. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, p. 213-228

[4] Mishkan Hanefesh, CCARPress, 2015 New York, p. 293