Perfection & Contentment

(reposted from Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin's blog:

While the philosophers and rabbis of old lost themselves in labyrinths of logic like: "Can we have free will if there is an All-Knowing God," mothers of old (or so I imagine) struggled with the very real question: "How can I raise my child to reach for excellence but be content with their best?"

That is, how can we, how do we, hold together two sides of an irreconcilable coin: actively seeking perfection and being content with less?

How do we avoid feeling like failures, like we are living lesser lives, when we come up short? How do we not give up, slump in our chairs, be washed in despair, and set our sights lower next time so we are not so disappointed again?

This is hardly an idle question. It is one we must all grapple with throughout our lives. It is the question that determines the essence, and difference, of religious traditions, and the difference between a content life and a unsettled one.

Judaism answers in a pithy aphorism, and in the ways we are taught to live.

"Rabbi Tarfon said: You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to ignore it." (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 2:21) Our task is not to achieve perfection but simply strive for it.

Shabbat agrees, but teaches more sweetly. We learn from the ebb and flow of Shabbat and workweek that for six days we are to work, chasing perfection, never achieving it. Yet, once a week, we get Shabbat, a taste of perfection. The candles we kindle, a midrash tells us, are sparks from the primordial light of the first day of creation. A pure light, different from the sun (which was created on the fourth day), this first light was set aside for the end of time, but it dips into this work-a-day world once a week in the form of our Shabbat candles to inspire and refresh us.

So every seven days we get a taste of perfection, a respite, a balm that celebrates our good-enough workday achievements, soothes our sagging spirits and sends us stronger back into the frail, imperfect world to keep striving for better.

Hanukkah, too, offers us a way forward. We sing of the miracle of the oil, when what was enough for one day lasted for eight. The true miracle, though, was not the oil but the faith of those who bothered to light it. The work needed to restore the Temple was beyond the task of one day. Or one precious cruse of oil. To light it would be a waste at best and a folly at worst. Yet they lit.

So too we light our Hanukkiot in the midst of darkness for eight days, even though we know that when the week is over, the darkness again follow.

We know that when we start. But we light anyway. We must. For while the lights are burning, we are buoyed. And when they go out, we start our work again.

(My thoughts on this subject were stimulated by a conversation I had with Elicia Brown who is writing an article on this subject for Jewish Women International's Jewish Woman magazine. Check out JWI, their important work and their wonderful magazine.)

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