By MORLEY T. FEINSTEIN
Praised be the God of imperfection; Your flaws are everywhere; in the elm’s unbalanced foliage and the asymmetric faces of Your creatures. You form the ripping floods that tear the forests and bend tornadoes in a twisted dance. The lion is blotched with age and mud, and the Shabbos silverware lies stained as a reminder. Praised be Your Torah of scratches and scars. Praised be your discolorations, for they are puzzles and poems of Your sacred character. Danny Siegel
Can you possibly imagine how bad God must have felt when the first few people he created messed up in such a big way? Just put yourself in God’s shoes for a minute. First, there’s Adam and Eve. He places them in this extraordinary venue, lush and green and filled with the very latest in technology, very politely requests of them not to touch or eat from one simple tree in the garden, and what do they do? They touch it, they eat from it, they start to pass the buck, “He did it” – “She told me to do it” – “The snake did it” and now they’re not only disobedient they’re lying! Get ’em out of this gorgeous garden! If they were new to the world how did they learn to lie anyway-God must now have been really upset. I can imagine God at the therapist’s couch trying to express his discomfort with the direction his children have taken, and His own guilt at not teaching them very well.
Then come Cain and Abel, the first homicide in world history, when Cain is so jealous of his brother and his quality gift to God that he goes and whacks him. Then God, inducing his own sense of guilt, and certainly knowing the answer inquires, “Where are you, Cain: Ayeka” when what he’s really saying is, “What in the world have you done, Cain? How could you have murdered your brother, your flesh and blood? What are you going to do the rest of your life?” Now there’s a response we can hear ourselves saying to our teenagers or college graduates or wandering twenty somethings, especially when they make poor choices. What happened to God’s parenting? Didn’t God take some parenting classes? After all, God didn’t have any role models for being Supreme Creator of the Universe! If God is our Father – or better yet, our Divine Parent – what skills is God showing here? What did he teach those first people? And what’s transpiring between God and God’s therapist?
And if that wasn’t enough – we’ve not completed six chapters in Genesis “and the whole world is filled with Hamas.” Yes – the very same word which is the name of the Islamic terrorists who govern Gaza – everything God made has gone bad! All the people are acting wrongfully, and only Noah and his family can redeem the world. He’s the best among the bunch of rotten apples filling the world with evil and wanton violence. Maybe if God is a parent on a learning curve by now God is pulling out whatever is left of His hair and bitten off the last divine fingernail, and who knows what resources there are to teach God how to be better at what the Divine Source of wisdom does. God just needs to start over.
I think the beginning of the Torah is teaching us some amazingly important lessons. God lives with the mistakes of God’s children. God lives with things not being perfect. And we too have to live with life not going the right way. Imperfection is built in to the system. Nothing is exactly as it is meant to be, and sometimes the best is not so good. Life has its pains and its shtokhs and we have to live with our aches and our disappointments. He married a wonderful girl but they live in Israel. She has the best job but she isn’t married yet. He’s so happy with his bride but why don’t they have children already. I wish Mom would just stop telling me what to do. How can I get Dad to let me grow in the business and do it my way? Why didn’t they send a birthday present, I’ll not send one to them and just hold this grudge, ‘til we end up not speaking…and worse, how can I handle the pain of this chemotherapy, the embarrassment of this colostomy bag, my new wig or hat. I just can’t pay the mortgage any more. Honey, they let me go at the office, I only have ’til next Friday. Brother, Dad is slipping away and … A friend whose daughter gave birth to a healthy baby two months ago wrote after finding out the nursing mom needed a double mastectomy after discovering breast cancer: “Life is such a hybrid of bitter and sweet times.”
Life is in a continual imbalance. And when we’re thrown out of our own personal garden or suffer a loss, language can escape us, and we can cut ourselves off from the Divine image, alienating ourselves both from God and others. If we revel in the imperfection, there is little hope for repair. One scholar (Jonathan Sarna) suggests “we are a people that never fails to see the dark at the end of the tunnel.” But if we learn how to deal with life’s normative chaos we can somehow find a way to personal moral and ethical equilibrium. We can make the garden radiant, taught Melila Hellner-Eshed
, repairing it, beautifying it, and elevating ourselves to harmony again, through our own efforts. The mystics taught that everything is a chariot for holiness, and the responsibility God gave us when God gave each one of us free will is to choose our path to the sacred each and every day. That idea of God grew out of a world of paganism, where people sacrificed their children to Moloch, and to teach instead “choose life” was and remains radical and revolutionary idea.
I have been blessed to study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem with one of the greatest living Jewish philosophers, David Hartman
. Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, men and women, we study Talmud and Kabbalah and Maimonides and argue and discuss. Hartman understands that giving us free will is God’s way of helping people deal with their issues, to somehow function in a world of imperfection. We still hope and dream of a better world despite all that is imperfect. Our Torah is filled with compromise situations, where ideals are sometimes bent and twisted on the anvil of real life experience. We live in the tension of conflicting values and conflicting ideas. Judaism isn’t a faith dealing with perfection, it’s coping with imperfection, with the messes, the spills, the interruptions, and how we live in this world where we are charged with the duty and privilege of helping people glue and sew and mend and repair the broken pieces of their lives back into some kind of wholeness. We aren’t some faith out in fairyland; our tradition comes out of the lived experience of its people, and the way we lead our Jewish lives is a corrective to the conditions of history. Why bother hoping for a better world? Because the world many of our ancestors lived in was painful and filled with anti-Semitism and life’s agonies. So we pray first, and then rise from our seats to get up and go out and work for tikkun olam
And that’s also the message of Yom Kippur. The way it has all been is not the end. The conclusion is not written. It’s not fixed in stone. Hartman told me that after years of psychoanalysis a friend said, “What I learned is that I can’t change my mother.” So then it’s my responsibility to change! My outlook, my attitude, my way of framing the world is in my hands. It’s not in the stars, or across the sea, or up in space. There can be hope, and healing, and transformation, and teshuvah. This last year and its pains, and cancers, and losses, and divorces, and arguments and monetary losses and loneliness: it’s over, and we hope next year will be better. A friend of 30 years taught me that our tsuris takes us into a universe of completely unknown possibilities, but the consequences of coping with that tsuris is up to us. On this very day God hears about us, His children, who abuse our health, botch our responsibilities, close our eyes to the poor, gossip, hinder progress, jeer at others, make little time for our family, refuse to be generous, succumb to peer pressure, yield to cynicism, zip past the good-how does God feel as our divine parent on this day? Like a parent who was totally unprepared for what would happen. And yet we conclude this day of introspection, taught Rabbi Bill Berk, focusing on our shortcomings and pains and mistakes with a full heart, knowing that after the fast we will eat and drink and know that God will forgive us (Mishna Rosh Hashana 1:3). We combine serious reverence and awareness of the tenuousness of our existence with a quiet sense of optimism and hopefulness.
To put up with us God certainly needs a strong dose of self-reflection, and so do we in putting up with God. This is not about naive sentimental hope; this is a hope that emerges from those who stay real and stay close to each other, forgiving our parents, forgiving our children, our spouses and partners, forgiving those who hurt us, and forgiving God too. We need to be reminded that even our noblest commitments are fragile and vulnerable. David Hartman wrote: "After the incident of the Golden Calf God’s reconfirmation of the covenant created a memory and awareness that human failure and rebellion are permanent possibilities of the relationship between God and the community" (Covenant, p. 262). It’s a model for us in relationships as well. I knew a man who had a wild affair while out of the country, his wife found out, and they worked through the trauma; they are still married together and happy grandparents-27 years later. Just like our ancestors and God after the Golden Calf. And we approach this day with hope, remembering generations past who forged hope, who managed to hold to this unique combination of realism and steadfast optimism. "Those that hope in God renew their strength" (Isaiah 40:31).
The Sioux nation of Nebraska uses a circle in their walking meditation. It’s big, a bit like a labyrinth, but this one has only two simple paths intersecting in the middle of it. One runs from west to east, symbolizing our lives, the other from south to north, representing our hardships. And in the center, where the path of being and adversity meet, a tree of life grows up, strong and beautiful. It often happens that our spiritual lives can deepen with a tragedy that shatters us. Everyone has walked through suffering. When we don’t feel like ourselves and we begin to cry into an exhausted sleep each night, a seed forms within our gut and we are often drawn to prayer and doubt. In times of misfortune, our wounded self cries out for the presence of God. We begin to ask larger questions and we can almost feel our roots growing deeper as we reach up higher and higher. Our commonplace earth overturns, as we suddenly notice that we need more and a dry thirst begins to evolve. And as we stand in that important place, something swells within us, and like the Psalmist (1:3) proclaims, we become as “trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, whose leaves do not wither” (Carol Merritt)
My late mother and father purchased a beautiful soft silk Persian rug, with a design of leaves and vines and trees, something from my folks I can show to my five year old daughters. When it’s turned on one side it’s really stunning, the colors, the combination of threads, the amazing and exquisite way it all blends together. It’s only when we look at the back that we see it’s a jumbled mess of threads, of knots, seemingly without pattern or purpose. Friends, if we only look at our life from the reverse side, we are unable to grasp the all encompassing framework of being, and we will only see a hodgepodge of threads. We have to acknowledge that the warp and woof of our lives might actually make a beautiful piece of art.
Perhaps the most spiritual congregant I once had was an artist. His paintings were, frankly, a bit bizarre, and there would be no way I could have had one in my living room. Seeing it in a museum was fine, but they were jagged and craggy and unsettling. He told me he only painted for himself, and thus he taught generation of students at the university. His paintings were his way of going through life, of conquering fear, of coping with his own demons, of working out problems. And he said the hardest thing he ever learned was living with ambiguity. He shared with me Sydney Harris’ thoughts that human life is many things, both wonderful and terrible, a mixed fabric of good and evil, happiness and horror, matters we can control to some degree and matters beyond our control. Ambiguity is the very essence of human existence. God has it with His children, and we have it with ours. Nobody is loved as much as he or she would like to be; nobody succeeds in every area of life, just as nobody fails in every area. We cannot change the cards that we were dealt; we can only play the hand to the best. Accepting life’s ambiguity implies more than knowing that life has its share of good things and bad things. It means knowing that good and evil are inextricably intermixed in human affairs; that they contain, and sometimes embrace, their opposites; that success may involve failure of a different kind and failure may be a kind of triumph.
Some years ago a violinist who had a childhood disease of polio began to cross the stage for his performance. He walked in pain, slowly, but somehow triumphant and heroic and majestic at the same time. He came out center stage, took his seat, and reaching down he unhinged the clasps that were on his leg and, tucking one leg back and extending the other, he took his violin in hand, laying his crutches on the floor, and began to play. No sooner had he started playing than one of those marvelous strings broke on his instrument. Everybody heard it. It went off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what it meant. There was equally no mistaking what he had to do.
The audience started applauding softly, finally louder and louder waiting for him to leave the stage. He did not leave the stage, but rather he signaled the maestro and they started the symphony…He played with such power, with such intensity, with three strings. I played the viola, and that is impossible to do. He was modulating, he was changing, he was recomposing the piece in his head, and on one or two occasions it even looked as if he detuned the strings to get different sounds or tuned them upward to get other sounds. I do not know. All I know is that when he finished, there was extraordinary, awesome, awe-inspiring applause and accolades from the audience. We were on our feet screaming and yelling and doing everything we could to say how much we appreciated what he had done. He quieted us down and gave us these words. He said, “It is my genius as well as my heart to make music with what remains.”
Perhaps that is the definition of life – not just for artists but for all of us. Here is a man who has prepared all his life to make music on a violin of four strings, who, all of a sudden, in the middle of a concert, improvises and the music he made that night with just three strings was more beautiful, more sacred, more memorable, than any that he had ever made before. So, perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, friends, may we make the music of our lives with what remains.
Morley T. Feinstein is Senior Rabbi of University Synagogue, Los Angeles, California, and a Hartman Institute Senior Rabbinic Fellow. This essay is adapted from a Yom Kippur sermon