God's Love for Imperfect People

Rabbi Joel Fleekop

Yom Kippur Morning - Saturday, September 22, 2007

A contemporary joke has it that most Jewish holidays can be summarized as follows: They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat.

While that is a gross oversimplification, it is true that many Jewish holidays, like Purim and Passover mark historical events. But others, like Tu B’shvat are connected to the seasons. And, as Arthur Waskow explains, most are in fact a combination of the two. For example the upcoming holiday of Sukkot both commemorates the Israelites’ wandering in the desert and acknowledges the fall harvest.

But Yom Kippur is different. Not only because food is noticeably absent, but also because it isn’t a response to anything external. It doesn’t mark a chapter in our people’s history, either positive or negative. And though in parts of the world the changing leaves nicely accent the theme of teshuvah, of making changes in our lives, the holy day isn’t really connected to autumn.

Yom Kippur exists because God has a realistic view of human nature and a love for who we are as human beings.

Absent a belief in original sin, Judaism does not teach that people are born flawed or in need of salvation. Rather we are born a blank slate. But included in the makeup of that blank slate is a yetzer ha-tov - the inclination to do good, as well as a yetzer ha-ra, - the inclination to do bad.

Much of the time, the yetzer ha-tov is dominant. And even when we are motivated to act by the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination, the outcome can still be for the good. As Midrash Rabbah teaches, “without the yetzer ha-ra, no man would build a house, take a wife, and beget children.” But sometimes the yetzer ha-ra, the force that drives us toward pleasure and the accumulation of property, leads us to miss the mark.

God, who endowed us with the yetzer ha-ra, recognizes that making mistakes, and, on occasion, even intentionally doing something we know is wrong, is part of the human condition.

The Mishnah’s descriptions of Yom Kippur, which famously includes two goats, one of which is sacrificed and the other, the origin of the term scapegoat, sent off into the wilderness symbolically bearing the sins of the people, begins with a series of less known rituals. Building upon the commands of Leviticus chapter 16, Mishnah Yoma gives elaborate description of the steps the high priest must first take to purify himself and his family. These include living apart from his family for seven days, engaging in a course of Torah study, and, with the arrival of Yom Kippur, offering several sacrifices.

The tradition mandates these steps because it recognizes that even the High Priest, the person in charge of overseeing the temple, will make mistakes. From Abraham the first Jew, to Moses, Judaism’s greatest prophet, there are no flawless characters in the bible, just as there are no flawless people in real life.

But the mistakes of Abraham, Moses, and others did not keep God from loving them. As members of last year’s Torah study group learned, King David is one of the Tanakh’s most compelling characters in part because he is so flawed. At best he is guilty of adultery and political machinations, at worst of murder and rebellion. But David, as his psalms indicate, knew the ever present love of God - a love, the rabbi’s teach, continues in the world to come.

Similarly, our mistakes do not disqualify us from being worthy of love, both human and divine. But sadly, many need to be reminded of this maxim.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book How Good Do We Have to Be describes how people often fear that if others saw their imperfections they would be deemed unlovable. He writes,

We are afraid of being judged and found flawed, less than perfect, because our minds translate “imperfect” to mean “unacceptable, not worth loving.” We make the facile translation from “I have done some wrong things” to “I am a person who constantly does wrong things” to “Anyone who really gets to know me will discover that I am bad and will reject me”

And so we do our best to hide our mistakes and often over react when criticized. We pass blame to make others think we are perfect and, shamed by who we really are, try to live up to someone else’s definition of perfection.

The costly affects on children and adolescents of trying to be perfect is the subject of Dr. Madeline Levine’s book, The Price of Privilege. Despite the title, Dr. Levine’s book is not about the Paris Hiltons of the world, it is about middle and upper middle class children. It’s about our children.

Dr. Levine, a practicing psychologist in Marin County for 25 years, observes that

“Parents’ anxiety about school performance leads to children who are pressured and anxious, but perhaps most dangerously it also leads to children who are perfectionists. Parents’ emphasis on achievement is linked to children’s maladaptive perfectionist strivings . . . that is perfectionism that impairs functioning – the child who can’t sleep, who throws up, or who feigns illness because he is anxious about a test. . . When parents place an excessively high value on outstanding performance, children come to see anything less than perfection as failure.”

The need to be perfect, whether perceived or real, has “all but crowded out kids’ internal push toward autonomy.” Dr. Levine writes,

“Fewer and fewer affluent teens are able to resist the constant pressure to excel. Between accelerated academic courses, multiple extracurricular activities, premature preparation for high school or college, special coaches and tutors . . . , many kids find themselves scheduled within an inch of their lives”

With their lives so heavily programmed and focused on achievement, many of our kids know what they are good at, but are clueless about what they actually enjoy. As 16 year old Tyler shared at one of his first sessions with Dr. Levine, ‘I have everything a kid could ask for, but I’m not really interested in anything. I’m just kind of going through the motions, trying to make my parents proud.”

Like Tyler, many of us go through life fearful that that if we don’t measure up to some ideal we will be labeled unacceptable and unlovable. But those fears are misplaced. One of the important, yet often forgotten messages of Yom Kippur is that God doesn’t require us to be perfect.

In the traditional machzor, prior to the chanting of Kol Nidre, a community leader reads the words of Rabbi Rothenberg. “Al da’at ha’ma’kom v’al da’at ha’ka’hal, b’yeshivah shel malah uvyeshivah shel matah, anu matirin l’hitpalel im ha’avarim -- By consent of the authorities in heaven and on earth, we permit those who have sinned to enter and be part of the congregation.”

As Rabbi Rothenberg’s dispensation makes clear, no one is to be excluded from the congregation on Yom Kippur. Those who have made mistakes are welcomed into the community because in fact, they are the community. All of us who stand before God today are flawed in one way or another. But that is ok.

What is required of us on Yom Kippur is not perfection but rather, as we do at the beginning of the Vidui prayer, to recognize and admit that we are not perfect. Yom Kippur teaches that if we take down the facades and admit that we have made mistakes, that we are flawed, God will not reject us but rather will forgive and embrace us. As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “God may be disappointed in some of the things we do; God is never disappointed in who we are.”

That is a very important distinction because it is a liberating one. It frees us from the paralyzing pressure to be something or someone we really aren’t, and liberates us to simply be our best selves.

In the book Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous is quoted as saying, “Before I was in recovery, I was perfect. Now, I’m better.” By compelling us to admit we are not perfect, yet reminding us that we are still of value, Yom Kippur enables us to be better. As Rabbi Kushner notes, “Only when we know that we are acceptable and lovable will we be able to change the things we don’t like about ourselves.”

The process by which Jews strive to change is called teshuvah, the origins of which Maimonides traces to the Temple and its sacrifices. In ancient times, when an Israelite committed a transgression he or she was to bring a korban or sacrifice to the Temple: a sin or a guilt offering. Along with a verbal confession, these sacrifices were an important part of moving beyond one’s misdeeds. But the sin and guilt offerings were not primarily about punishment nor where they about balancing things out on the cosmic scoreboard by doing one good deed for every bad one. The Torah commands the sacrifice be offered because doing so enabled the penitents to see that although they sometimes make mistakes, they are also capable of being generous and self disciplined. By offering a korban, by drawing close to God, our ancestors were reminded of their best selves.

Though we no longer offer sacrifices, the goal of teshuvah remains the same. We confess the mistakes of the past and apologize to those we have wronged not to shame ourselves into being someone we are not, but rather to help us connect with our true selves, our best selves. By showing consideration for others, by being compassionate and humble, by trying to create tikkun, repair in our relationships and our world, we are reminded that within our imperfect selves is the potential for great menshlekeit and holiness.

This afternoon, as we do every Yom Kippur, we will read the book of Jonah. Alongside the prophet’s story, which at times reads more like a Greek tragedy than a book in the bible, is a tale about God’s love for imperfect people. Jonah is sent to warn the people of Nineveh to stop their wicked ways not because God hates them but rather because God loves them. As Rabbi Reuven Hammer observes, “God is depicted in the Book of Jonah as a God of mercy, who prefers repentance and forgiveness to inflicting punishment.”

When the people of Nineveh hear that in 40 days their great city will be overthrown, they respond by humbling themselves and asking forgiveness. The king dresses himself in sackcloth, sits in ashes, and issues a royal edict that the entire city shall join him in penitential prayers and fasting.

According to the biblical account, this is how the Ninevites atoned. But the Rabbi’s suggest that their repentance involved more. According to the commentaries, they “did not stop at fasting and praying. They took actions that showed they were determined to lead a better life.” They returned objects stolen objects and appearing before courts to confess their unknown crimes.

The midrash tells of one instance where a Ninevite man found a treasure on a lot he had recently bought from his neighbor. He went to the seller and offered him the treasure, explaining that he had bought the land and nothing more. But the seller insisted that the sale of the lot carried with it all that it contained. Both men refused to take possession of the treasure and, with the help of the court went in search of its legitimate owners.

When God saw the behavior of these two Ninevite men, and of all the others who not only admitted their faults but engaged in acts of repair and kindness, there could be no doubt, the city had be spared.

Just as God sent Jonah to the people of Nineveh out of love, God has given us today, Yom Kippur out of love. God understands that as human beings we will make mistakes and will sometimes take the wrong path. And so, like Jonah’s voice ringing through the great city, the prescribed prayers and confessions of Yom Kippur urge us to acknowledge our errors and commit ourselves to doing better in the future. They direct us to the work of teshuvah, a complete repentance, so that like the Ninevites, God will be able to judge us favorably.

Jewish tradition offers the Ninevites’ repentance as a model for teshuvah. And so it is noteworthy that nowhere in the midrash is their mention of a mass conversion or other changes in who the Ninevites are. They are still the same people they were before, but instead of being defined by their worse deeds, they are now trying to be their best selves. And that is all that God asks. On Yom Kippur God doesn’t command us to change who we are, God invites us to be our best selves.

With the support of community and God’s blessing, I pray that this year we are able to accept the invitation.