The following sermon was given by Rabbi Ariana Katz at Hinenu on September 18, 2018 at Kol Nidre, erev Yom Kippur.
I thought I’d begin this morning by talking about a revolutionary leader, who led a failed, but powerful revolt.
The story goes like this:
And it once was that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva were walking along the road in the Roman Empire, following the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and they heard the sound of the multitudes of Rome a distance away. The city was so large that they were able to hear its raucousness from a great distance.
And the other Sages began weeping and Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They said to him: WHY are you laughing?
Rabbi Akiva said to them: And you, WHY are you weeping?
They said to him: Our enemy, those Romans, who worship false gods, are secure and happy in this giant city, while for us, our Holy Temple is burnt. We should not weep?
Rabbi Akiva said to them: That is why I am laughing. If the people who cause such destruction and transgress God’s will are so rewarded, imagine how much more we who perform God’s will, will be rewarded!
The Talmud relates another story, in which the rabbis were walking to Jerusalem after the destruction of the second temple. They see the the destroyed husk of the holy temple, and rend their garments in mourning. They see a fox--a wild animal run out, and they are inconsolable.
Rabbi Akiva, begins to laugh.
They said to him: WHY are you laughing?
Rabbi Akiva said to them: And you, WHY are you weeping? Our prophets, Uriah and Zechariah, prophesied first the destruction would come, and then our ultimate redemption. Without first proving Uriah’s destruction, we would not have proof of our redemption.
Hearing that, Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues said to him, ‘Akiva, you have comforted us. Akiva, you have comforted us.’ (Makot 24a-b)
In the brokenness, we sometimes find hope. In the lamenting of what has been destroyed, there is sometimes a Rabbi Akiva in us, who sees promise in the desolation. Rabbi Akiva sees that an intact, whole, operational holy temple was ultimately not going to bring comfort. Seeing the destruction of it had greater promise. An imperfect world offers us more opportunity for creative solutions. The dynamism that emerges from catastrophe, like Rabbi Akiba’s double back flip connection of prophet to prophet all while standing in the ashes of the crumbling Temple, is another one of our survival strategies. Combating perfectionism, embracing the crashing of how we thought life was supposed to be, who we thought we were supposed to be, what we thought the world was supposed to be, will help us survive this time of great turning. Our strategy for survival can come from imagining ourselves standing in the smoking charred remains of our holy temple, our closest place on this earth to Divinity, shoulder to shoulder with Rabbi Akiva, and laughing.
This is not to say violence, tragedy, attack is just “imperfection,” this is not to say the dispersal of a people is a minor inconvenience, the distancing of any holy people from any holy place a laughing matter. But the dynamic responses to imperfect situations is itself holy. Repair.
Rabbi Akiva, in this story, is a practitioner of emergent strategy. Emergent strategy, as defined by adrienne marie brown in her book of the same time, is a way of describing plans of action, personal practices and collective organizing tools that account for constant change and rely on the strength of relationship for adaptation (23).
This Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we’ve been learning tools for surviving times of great turning. I’ve discussed listening to ancestors, pulling on collective prior knowledge. I’ve taught about chesed, lovingkindness, giving care and receiving care. One more tool we can add to our arsenal of survival strategies this year: combatting, casting off, stamping out, perfectionism.
Judaism and Perfection
We have acted wrongly, we have been untrue, we have gained unlawfully, we have defamed, we have harmed others, we have wrought injustice, we have zealously transgressed, we have hurt, and we have told lies.
Judaism doesn’t demand perfection. What it is that our liturgy demands is that we take accountability for our actions and our inactions. When our negative thoughts lead to hurtful actions, it is then we must make teshuvah. But Judaism can’t penalize you for thinking things. Or asking questions--an extension of thinking, verbalising a question. A good question, that unhinges, unearths, uncovers greater truth about our world is a gift to be praised, not punished.
Judaism does not expect perfection. Perfection, in this world, is impossible. Not because of a fatal human flaw, I believe, but because some things are not for us to come to know. For example, the sound of the tetragramaton, the four letter name of God yud and hey and vav and hey. Some perfection, we just can’t know. Like the sound the world will hum when a whole peace falls upon the earth.
We cannot expect perfection. Even the wake up call of our shofar, the building block sound of the universe, is comprised of shattering. TKIYAH! Wholeness. Fullness. TERUAH! A shattering, into pieces. Fissures that cannot hold back, that break. SHEVARIM! A complete breaking, scattered pieces, broken. TEKIAH! And amidst that brokenness, a fullness. A new kind of wholeness.
We cannot expect perfection. Our lunar/solar calendar, based on the turning of the moon, governs the rhythm of our ritual and spiritual and often emotional lives. The artist Grace D Chin offers this quote, inspired by the moon: You do not need to be whole to be perfect. For us, perhaps, you do not need to be perfect to be whole, full and glowing like the moon. You do not need to strive for a remote, unreachable idea before you are worthy of being blessed. The monthly blessing of the new moon ends with this:
“Praised are you, O Lord, who renews new moons.”
Inherent in discarding perfectionism is the blessing of renewal. A second chance. A repair, and opportunity to try again. Rather than a stagnated beam of light never changing, we are challenged to learn from the presence of the bright full moon in the sky, and challenged to learn from the darkness of the new moon. It is at the beginning of the moon’s journey that we bless, exalt, and praise. It is at the beginning of trying again that we can offer blessing.
We cannot expect perfection. Our tradition calls us to always remember the destruction of the Temple. Some families keep a corner of their homes unpainted, always, to recall that there is still an unfinished, unperfected corner of our hearts. When a couple smashes glasses under the wedding chuppah, it serves as a reminder of the destruction of the temple, and a world still in need of support finding wholeness.
We talk a lot about teshuvah this season. Returning, repairing. Returning to our best selves, returning to connection to Divinity, repairing our relationships with ourselves, each other, and with God. In a time when we are supposed to be asking to be sealed in the book of life for good and well being, we are actively admitting our faults, planning to do better. Why don’t we do this 6 months before Yom Kippur? Why combine the work of teshuvah with the time when our fates will be decided?
The work is itself the blessing. The reflection, the repair is itself the reward. The difficulty of this time is the entire reason itself.
Kabbalah, our mystical tradition, teaches that the closest a human being can get to the inconceivable all-encompassing unity of God is through the process of teshuvah. Rabbi Ya’akov, quoted in the Pirkei Avot, the Wisdom of our Sages, says "One moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than the entire life of the world to come” (4:17). Perfect behavior, thoughts, lives, would steal from us the opportunity to make teshuvah. Perfectionism takes from us the very gift of life--being so delightfully, strangely, imperfectly human.
When I was 20 I heard the famous quote from the Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, often paraphrased to say, “there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” Every time I hear this, I feel my whole body just settle, my heart drop to my stomach. “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” What could this mean? How could something broken be whole? How could teshuva in this world be better than life in the world to come? How could a rabbi stand and laugh in the charred remains of the holy temple?
That of us that is deemed broken is most holy.
Ableism and Perfectionism
When we cast off the bonds to perfectionism, we begin to know one another better. We begin to know ourselves better. When we no longer imagine perfection as an achievable reality, we begin to move through the world more easily. Treat each other more kindly.
I invite you to think of a time that you expected perfection from yourself. It could be years ago, when making a big choice. It could be even from today, an idealized image of how you wanted your experience in shul to go, or how your practice on Yom Kippur would feel. Get to know that expectation.
Now realize that it might not really happen that way. Remember how it felt when perfection wasn’t reached. When you felt like you failed. See yourself among the wreckage of the temple you erected to exalt Perfected Ideas.
Now imagine the best laugh you’ve ever heard. Can you picture the face of the person laughing, or hear it burst out of them? Picture that laugh, instead. Maybe you smile or start to chuckle. Maybe you laugh for real--a laugh that banishes the desolation of imperfection. That welcomes imperfection like a friend.
Maybe you know all this too well already. Perfectionism is a myth, put forward by world that tells us we must conform to the norm, that is established by those who wield power, demand all “others” conform to fit the mold. This abelist, cis-sexist, misogynist, fat phobic white supremacist culture sets the definition on perfection, and then limits and restricts our bodies and our lives accordingly. None of us are perfect. Why do we keep trying?
In the coming year I am particularly committed to learning about how perfectionism is linked to ableism, in its demands for one way of moving through the world, one schedule of the day to conform to the speed of, one way of thinking and feeling and communicating. How our communities explicitly and implicitly establish and sustain non-accessible spaces through our expectations of ourselves and others. How our communities explicitly and implicitly hold a single belief of what a perfected body or mind does.
I am sitting with again and again the words of Mia Mingus from her 2011 keynote address at the Femmes of Color symposium. Mia Mingus is a writer, educator and community organizer for disability justice and transformative justice. She is a queer physically disabled korean woman transracial and transnational adoptee from the Caribbean. I am internalizing, and re-reading, to begin to learn what I can about this violence of the perfected image of a body, or a life. She closes her remarks on ugliness in a way that speaks to what we must lay down from perfectionism
If you leave with anything today, leave with this: you are magnificent. There is magnificence in our ugliness. There is power in it, far greater than beauty can ever wield. Work to not be afraid of the Ugly—in each other or ourselves. Work to learn from it, to value it. Know that every time we turn away from ugliness, we turn away from ourselves. And always remember this: I would rather you be magnificent, than beautiful, any day of the week. I would rather you be ugly—magnificently ugly.
And the truth is, this is messy. This life, this struggling to survive, this wondering how we’re all going to make it through this world together. This is messy, this having a body, having to fit in to rigid systems, fighting the stories we tell ourselves about how we should be.
But Mingus and Rabbi Akiva tell us this much: in the mess, in the truth telling, in the desolation, there is survival.
PERFECTION is not a Jewish value.
Blessing for Imperfection
That which is broken offers a greater knowledge of wholeness. That which is shattered only knows about what it means to be full and intact. May we wander through the ruins of our Temples, and not weep but rejoice and laugh, for we know a perfected world is so far from this one, but dwelling in the ruins, and finding beauty among the fallen trees, is the most human, the most holy, the most perfect we can be.
We will build a new world from the ashes of the old, like Rabbi Akiva on the steps.
So this year, may we be blessed with imperfection. This year may we be strengthened to see all our cracks, all the light that comes in (Leonard Cohen z’l). This year may we fail miserably, and repair together. This year may we come to know the word shalem, whole, is the twin of the word shalom, peace. May we find peace in our wholeness. Keyn yehi ratzon.