Rabbi Stillman’s 2018 Yom Kippur sermon

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
–Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Forgive me for quoting one of the most oft quoted and therefore clichéd of the great singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, but I couldn’t resist.

The message of recognizing and embracing our brokenness is embedded across these high holy day services—in the prayers we recite, in the Torah readings of human struggles (between Sarah and Hagar, the binding of Isaac) and human longings (Hannah’s prayer for a child) and in the calls of the shofar, one of which is named shevarim, which literally means broken—a series of three short, broken blasts that we hear many times on Rosh Hashanah.

However, the direction we are led into in our everyday lives is more toward perfectionism than brokenness. Perfectionism is something that I have had cause to reflect on frequently in my life, both because of my personal tendency toward it, and because some of my places of work have been elite colleges and universities, places that seem to attract and perhaps breed perfectionists. Present company excluded, of course. I’d like to use this sermon to reflect on the tendency, untenable as it is, toward perfectionism. I’ll begin with the personal.

Early on in my career as a Jewish educator, a frequent job interview question I was asked was to share some of my weaknesses. At the time of applying for these jobs, I was either too inexperienced or too reluctant to really reflect on that question, and I would answer that I was a perfectionist. This seemed like the perfect answer, in fact, because it hinted that even if I was annoying about getting everything exactly right, at least I would be doing just that—and who wouldn’t want that in an employee? It felt like a weakness that could secretly be interpreted as a strength. The truth was, though, that even then I had an inkling that my and anyone else’s perfection was actually a real weakness. I did finally land a job working with undergraduates at Harvard Hillel for a few years. I was only truly able to understand how challenging that work environment had been for me when many years later, I began an internship at Ursinus College for my final year of rabbinical school. Ursinus is a great, small liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia, with a terrible name. It is not ranked as high as Middlebury or my alma mater, and certainly it was not Harvard. The students were smart and interesting and fun to be with. They did their school-work, mostly, and they always cooked and served a spectacular Shabbat dinner, but they never took a lot of interest in organizing themselves or improving on the systems that were already in place at the Hillel, which were pretty shallow. They were there to get a good education, and some of them had jobs lined up when they graduated, and some of them didn’t. The surprise to me was that it was so much more fun to work there than at Harvard. The students were much more appreciative of any help they could get from me—it was a part-time internship—and they were accepting of the limitations they and I had. Many of the students at Harvard had led with a critical lens—much more eager to find fault and to compare, rather than to appreciate what they had—and what they had was substantial. Once I began to understand the vibe at Ursinus, I found it a place where I was willing to be more creative—to experiment with different approaches—because I wasn’t afraid of making mistakes the way I was at Harvard. The cultures were different. One, the Ursinus one, assumed that people were doing their best and appreciated that they all came from different circumstances with different situations and capacities. The other, the Harvard one, assumed that everything could always be better, and that everyone, regardless of their situation, had to conform to the same high standard at all times. Although there is nothing wrong with striving to change the world for the better, there was something constricting about the way so many of the Harvard students went about it.

This is a lesson I am constantly learning. When I started rabbinical school I informed my husband Matt that there were no grades at this school that I would be in for the next five years. He laughed out loud. “What, I asked?” “How are you going to survive without grades?” His point was well taken. The majority of my life at that point had been as a student, and as a student so much of my self-worth had been tied up with my grades. How would I operate in a system where that was not the final measurement? I always been an excellent student, but I had developed the unfortunate habit of always having a paper or two hanging over my head, from all the incompletes I would take at the end of a semester, because if I just had more time, the paper could be—perfect. It took a while, and I didn’t exactly shake that incomplete habit, but by the end of rabbinical school I was able to embrace my classmate Deb’s adage that “done is better than perfect.” The lack of grades at this school did not reflect a less rigorous academic approach—there was more reading and requirements than anyone could really do—but rather an emphasis on more than that. We were evaluated not only on our understanding of the academic material, but also on our capacity to be there for people, to grow internally ourselves, and to create environments of welcome and inclusion. These things are not reflected in grades as we conceive of them.

British novelist and essayist Rachel Cusk illustrates this tension between perfectionism and welcome beautifully in an essay for the New York Times Magazine entitled “Making House: Notes on Domesticity.” She writes that she has recently renovated and redecorated her flat, and lives in a state of constant worry that her teenage children will destroy it by eating on the couch. On the other hand, she writes:
Another friend of mine runs her house with admirable laxity, governing her large family by a set of principles that have tidiness as a footnote or a distant goal, something it would be nice to achieve one day, like retirement. In the kitchen, you frequently feel a distinct crunching sensation from the debris underfoot; the stairs are virtually impassable with the possessions that have accumulated there, the books and clothes and toys, the violins and satchels and soccer shoes, all precipitously stacked as if in a vertical lost property office; the children’s rooms are so neglected they have acquired a kind of wilderness beauty, like untouched landscapes where over time the processes of growth and decay have created their own organic forms. In the kitchen, the children make volcano cakes or create chemical explosions; somewhere in the upper regions of the house, a singing teacher leads the older ones in hollering out show tunes; in the corridors, there is always a multitude of friends and pets and hangers-on milling around. One day a hamster got out of its cage; it was found six months later, living happily with a brood of offspring in a wardrobe. My friend looks at it all with mock despair, then waves it away with her hand. If that’s how they want to live, she says, then let them. In this house, the search for happiness appears to be complete; or rather, in the chaotic mountain of jumble it is always somehow at hand, the easiest of all things to find. The foreground is entirely human here: The rooms may have been neglected, but the people haven’t been. It is clear to me that by eradicating the tension of the material, my friend has been able to give her children exactly what she wanted to give them — love, authority, the right advice — where for other people these things got mixed up and snagged on one another.

This is a kind of household that I fear, yet an attitude that I aspire to. One that elevates relationships and people over outward appearances and things. The stance of perfectionism seems to be focused on the opposite—making sure everything looks ok to the outside, even at the expense of real connection and relationship.

What I learned in rabbinical school was how important it was to “just” show up. Meaning to come whether or not you feel prepared, whether or not you have read the sermon over a zillion times or know every detail of the history of the prayer. But showing up is so much more than the “just.” It means to be there next to someone who is sick or mourning and to bring your whole presence, even when you have no idea what you will say, or what the right thing to say is, as if there is a right thing anyway. It means to show up at a community event even when you might not have anything obvious to offer, and to be present to what may unfold. So by showing up I don’t mean showing up somewhere physically but then taking out your smart phone and commencing to remove yourself from where you are. I mean showing up with presence. Showing up with attention. Actually being where you are instead of worrying about where you are not, or what else you should be getting done, or who else you could be with. Perfectionism is sometimes a barrier to showing up, and showing up is its potential cure.

My first Sukkot working at Ursinus College we didn’t leave enough time to put up the sukkah before people started to arrive for the dinner we had that night. Because of this, I was pretty stressed out. There was food to be cooked, and bamboo to be thrown on the roof, and lights to be strung and tables to be brought out—and not enough people to do it all before everyone arrived. It was clear that we would not be ready before the so-called guests got there. But the guests were just other students, and when they did begin to arrive, we suddenly had enough people. Everyone pitched in, and in little time the sukkah was decorated, the tables were standing, and the food was brought outside. No one seemed to mind that things were a little later than scheduled, or that they had needed to pitch in. In fact, it was the opposite. The students who had helped felt more invested in the event than they would have if they had just shown up and been served. They had participated in the mitzvah of decorating the sukkah and extending hospitality. They had invested in the dinner by helping set it up, and therefore they owned it—exactly the outcome that I was looking for, but achieved in a very accidental way.

It’s not that I recommend never preparing or leaving everything to chance. My critique of perfectionism is in no way a critique of trying your best, of striving to do things better, or of trying to improve the world. Brene Brown, noted researcher and professor of Sociology writes extensively on this in her book: “The Gifts of Imperfection.” I only have time to cite a fraction of it, although I recommend the whole thing. She writes:

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best…[it] is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield…Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Healthy striving is self-focused—How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused—What will they think?” (56)

She goes on to explain that, ironically, perfectionism actually hampers success. It makes us risk averse—we are afraid of failure, and so we avoid opportunities and we don’t allow ourselves to try new things. And it’s not that trying and failing is going to feel amazing—perfectionists are right that it might not feel great—but that these feelings are part of human life. And the more we avoid them, the more painful they will probably be when we do inevitably experience them. The antidote to this is, quite simply and quite challengingly, self-compassion. She explains that when she interviewed hundreds of people who exhibit the positive characteristics of whole-heartedness she found: “They appeared to operate from a place of ‘We’re all doing the best we can.’ Their courage, compassion and connection seemed rooted in the way they treated themselves.” (59)

This notion is brilliantly illustrated in Rebbe Nachman’s folk story of the Chacham and Tam, the clever man and the simple man, or I may suggest translating it as: The Perfectionist and the Whole-hearted one. The story goes that there are two friends who grow up together in the same town, but they couldn’t be more different. One is exceedingly clever, and one is exceedingly simple. The clever one leaves his childhood home and moves to a large city, where he becomes a doctor and an expert in all manner of things, and the simple one stays put and becomes a mediocre cobbler. Here is a taste of what life was like for the clever man, as told by Martin Buber in his Tales of Rebbe Nachman:
Thus it happened one day that he needed a garment, and he sent for the best tailor in the town to whom he gave exact instructions as to the nature of the costume. The master took many pains so that it would turn out well, and in general the result was excellent. Only the cuff of the sleeve had not been made entirely as the wise man had deemed proper and had desired, and this circumstance enraged the learned man, for he was anxious lest in Spain he would perhaps be derided on account of this improperly sewn sleeve cuff, even though here in this country the people understood little enough about suitable clothing. (81)

The simple man, on the other hand, was almost always happy, because he could not even discern when people were laughing at him and his simpleness. He thought the best of everyone.
After some time, the King learns of these two men, and he calls for them to come to his court. Messengers are sent out—a clever one to inform the clever man, and a simple one to inform the simple man. The simple man is thrilled to be asked to see the King, and leaves right away. He meets the King and is so open and unassuming, that the King, who has just had to fire a governor who was misusing the office, and longs for an honest person for the job, makes the simple man the governor. Martin Buber writes:
As governor, he now conducted himself simply and honestly, as he had at the time when he had been a poor shoemaker, and since he himself had passed his life without intrigues, he knew how to see into the heart of right and wrong, and his judgements became respected everywhere. His people and his advisors came to love him, and his fame soon penetrated to the king who wished for nothing so fervently as to have at his side a man of such strict virtue and simple understanding. Thus it came about that he appointed the simple man as his prime minister and had a palace built for him not far from his court. (87)

Meanwhile, what becomes of the clever man? He doubts that the King would ask to see him—it doesn’t seem logical. Eventually he denies that there even is a king, convincing the clever messenger that he has no proof of a king either, and they travel the world to convince others of the non-existence of the king, losing all their wealth in the process. Wherever they went, other people seemed to be mad and deluded to them, for believing that there was actually a king; for believing anything at all.

In Judaism itself we see a tension between perfection and imperfection, between wholeness and brokenness. The offerings of the priests, and the priests themselves, had to be without defect—perfect specimens of the animal that was to be given to God. Yet they were being offered to atone for the mistakes of the humans who offered them. The modern analogue to this is, of course, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. There may have been a longing to give of the best to God, but there was also a constant recognition that the human condition was not one of perfection.

In Exodus 32: 19 we learn that when Moses came down from Mt Sinai with the two tablets of the ten commandments, written by God, he became so enraged at seeing the people worshipping the golden calf that he “hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.” Moses then has to plead with God to receive the commandments and tablets again.

The Talmud later learns that the broken pieces of the tablets were placed in the Ark along with the whole ones. (Bava Batra 14b:6)

Another tractate of the Talmud directly relates this to the compassionate act of embracing the imperfect:
R. Joshua b. Levi said to his sons,…be careful [to honour] an old man, who has forgotten his learning involuntarily: for we say that both the whole tables of stone and the pieces of the broken tablets were placed in the Ark.” (Berakhot 8b:5-7)

What broken pieces of ourselves can we admit to and carry with us? How can we receive them compassionately, like an old person who no longer has the same ability that they once did? How can we recognize that this, our brokenness, is also our humanity, and that to strive to erase it completely is to give up human connection? This is what we are doing here together today, and it is our work for the whole year ahead. May it be an imperfect one, full of wonderful, unplanned surprises and relationships.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
–Leonard Cohen

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