Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Debunking, "Perfect"

Recently I came across an article titled, "Six Kinds of Perfection."  As a person who has never truly achieved even one kind of perfection (though certainly not for lack of trying), I was intrigued with the idea that there might, in fact, be six types to strive for.  Perfectionists, rejoice!  More chances to hit the target!

So, I started reading.  Noting that the Sages called Bereishit, "the book of the righteous," the author proceeded to make the following claim:

"Genesis is the story of a series of perfect individuals.  Adam (made in the image of G-d), Noah (whom the Torah calls 'a righteous man'), Abraham (described as 'G-d's beloved'), Isaac (the 'perfect offering'), Jacob (the ultimate 'whole person'), and Joseph ('the righteous')."

Noooooo.  If there is one line of reasoning that frustrates me to no end, it's the argument that any Biblical figures were, "perfect."  I'm no expert Torah scholar, but I don't think you need to look very far to find the complexities (flaws?) within the six individuals listed above.  Were they inspirational?  Certainly.  Influential?  Definitely.  Instructive?  For sure.  But perfect?  

Let's do a brief run-down:  Although he was created in G-d's image, Adam committed one of the first "sins" in the Torah and then blamed Eve for his own inability to follow G-d's instructions.  As for Noah, the Torah says, "Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with G-d" (Bereishit 6:9).  Many Sages have argued that the phrase, "in his generations," implies that Noah was only righteous compared with the deeply corrupt individuals among whom he lived, and he is often criticized for saving only his own family and not reaching out to try to save others.  Abraham certainly was very virtuous...but he was also the man who put his wife in danger by asking her to pretend to be his sister, lest the Egyptians kill him to take her as their own.  Like his father, Isaac also pretended that his wife was his sister, thereby endangering Rebecca and nearly tricking Abimelech's people into sinning by being intimate with a married woman. Jacob does bear the distinction of being Israel, the true father of the Jewish people.  However, he is also the man who tricked his brother into giving up his birthright, and who deceived his father in order to secure his blessing.  And, finally, there's Joseph.  When Jacob arrives in Egypt after not seeing Joseph, his son, for 22 years, Jacob is overcome by emotion and greets Joseph enthusiastically.  Joseph, however, responds in a curious way:  by turning to his brothers and telling them he will alert Pharoah that they have arrived.  With everything that has transpired in Joseph's family, with everything that remains unsaid between him and his father, Joseph is unable--or unwilling--to connect with Jacob in that moment.

My analysis here is relatively brief and simple, and I recognize that each of the points in the previous paragraph could be fodder for its own lengthly, intense discussion.  But, clearly it is not hard to find the complexities within each of the key male players in Bereishit.  I would suggest that deeming these men, "perfect," is an oversimplification that erases the richness and nuances of their characters.

I believe that what makes these individuals truly great is precisely that they are not perfect.  They may loom larger than life over our collective narrative, but if they did not have their own weaknesses and flaws, how would any of us be able to relate to--or truly learn from--them?  They don't need to be perfect to be worthy of our admiration.  Instead, they earn our respect by dealing head-on with their own sets of challenges, sometimes making what seem like less-than-ideal choices but still managing to be leaders who get their jobs done.

Perfection is something so elusive that not even Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Joseph was able to achieve it.  And yet, we don't stop trying to emulate these men.  We don't stop studying their stories or invoking their names in blessings.  We embrace them, complex figures all, because through their struggles they teach us much more than any "perfect" person ever could.

When I think about the people in my life with whom I'm most connected, I recognize that not a single one of them is perfect...and I love them all the more for their ability to live authentically and to actively work through their challenges.  When I try to imagine a perfect person, all that comes to mind is a robotic, Stepford-wife-like creation who, as a result of her not having any complexities, is boring and impossible to relate to.  Perfectionist though I am, when I ask myself, "Do my loved ones wish I was perfect?" I have to admit that the answer is probably, "no."  Instead, what they probably wish is that I was more open with them about the true ups and downs of my life.

When I study Bereishit, I take comfort in the fact that even our greatest role models were only human beings--multilayered human beings with their own sets of strengths and weaknesses.  It seems to me that Hashem has always understood that we cannot truly relate to perfection, and that if the bar is set at, "flawless," our shortcomings will only discourage and demoralize us.  So, in His infinite wisdom, He gave us forefathers (and foremothers!) who could lead our people not because they were perfect, but because they knew how to rise above their challenges.  As we each make our way through our own journeys, that's really the best we can hope for:  to pass through obstacles and emerge on higher ground, and to become greater people because of it.