It's OK to Be Imperfect

by Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann

Steven was walking briskly past the large building, not seeing it, his thoughts focused instead on the busy day ahead of him. From somewhere inside a soft melody, barely distinguishable, drifted out an open window and caught him totally unawares. He stopped in his tracks and listened. What was that? Why did it sound so familiar?

He opened the large front door and stepped slowly over the threshold of the building, his ears attuned to the sounds. Where was he? It was a synagogue. The melody, he now remembered, he'd heard before, standing beside his grandfather so many long years ago.

The memories of Rosh Hashanah and Zeide came rushing back with an impact that he would never have believed possible. He looked around, a little embarrassed. What should he do? Should he leave as logic dictated, his work waiting for him? Or should he stay, as his heart was inexplicably urging him? But, he'd left his Jewish learning behind so many years ago. He was afraid to even pick up a prayer book, concerned that he would look foolish to the others.

He was torn because he did not want to seem imperfect or inexperienced or unknowledgeable. He was afraid to take the step of staying because he was unsure of himself and what he knew and whether it was appropriate.

Whatever Steven decided in the end to do is not the point here. What is important is that we can learn a very wonderful and uniquely Jewish lesson from this story.

The lesson is that it's okay to be imperfect. A funny thing to say, isn't it? Especially as we approach the High Holidays, the time of year that is most intense for all Jews, no matter what our level of observance may be. The time of year when are supposed to review our deeds of the past twelve months and look ahead, with determination and conviction, to better ourselves in the year ahead.

It's a tall order – a very tall order. "It's okay to be imperfect" is meant to reassure us that we must do our best, even if we don't achieve perfection in our first attempt, or even the second or third. Each first step we take leads ultimately to another step and another, until before we know it, we have gone further than we ever thought we could.

There are those who might say to themselves like Steven in the story above: I don't pray the entire year so why should I go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah? How good can my prayers really be if I can't read Hebrew? Do I really think my imperfect supplications can make a difference?

Every year, questions like these trouble so many sincere Jewish hearts. Whatever our level of religious observance — from one end of the spectrum to the other — we can easily feel an uncomfortable inconsistency between the pitched fervor of our prayers during the High Holidays and our less inspired yearly conduct.

But these very feelings serve as a wake-up call to us — to resolve to do the best we can do, regardless of how imperfect it may be. What is required of us is that we take the first step, however tiny it is, toward improving ourselves.

Undoubtedly the greatest Jew in the history of the world was Moses. He led a nation of slaves out of Egyptian bondage to ultimately become the chosen people. In the splendor of our complete tradition, no human being attained his lofty status.

Every single time we conclude reading from the Torah, Jews throughout the ages have stood to celebrate the legacy that Moses left us with the words "V'zot Hatorah asher sum Moshe L'fnei Bnei Yisroel" – "This is the Torah which Moses placed before the children of Israel." (Deuteronomy 4:44)

The biblical commentator Kli Yakar (Rabbi Solomon Luntschitz, 1550-1619) explains this verse to be a reference to Moses' inability to effectively establish three Cities of Refuge as a haven for those in need. Only after Joshua's conquest of Israel and his designation of three additional cites of refuge could Moses' three Cities of Refuge which he designated on the Trans-Jordan (as discussed in the previous verses in Deuteronomy) take effect. "This is the Torah (i.e. lesson) which Moses placed before the children of Israel" — the importance of starting a mitzvah although one may not be able to carry it out to its conclusion.

Although Moses' resume was saturated with effective leadership skills, the Torah refers to his greatest gift to the Jews as a project that was only ultimately completed by his successor, Joshua.

According to the Kli Yakar, despite our imperfections and lack of any visible success, we still continue to strive to attain a higher level, to continue to add to our storehouse of good deeds. This is the courage that G‑d and the Jewish people have celebrated for thousands of years.

Breaking past records and surpassing goals are indeed great victories and opportunities for jubilation. Judaism, however, has never been obsessed with the stardom of finishing in first place, but rather with exerting your own very personal best. Perfection never became the yardstick of all Jewish success. Our barometer of triumph has always been measured by our effort in overcoming our own personal challenges. To cross the finish line effectively means to outperform your own fixed standards of performance and inhibitions.

Moses' example teaches us that in life our approach should not be the attitude that it's either everything or nothing. The most faultless person in history, who spoke face to face with G‑d, began the City of Refuge project but he never witnessed its completion. He was matchless in his achievements and the Torah acknowledges his sincerity, not by his lack of accomplishments in not creating three fully functioning cities of refuge in his lifetime but rather by his doing everything in his power to leave this world in a better state.

When we set out to run a marathon, we do so with the idea of finishing the race. But if we can't, no one looks down on us. The most important thing is that we at least turned up at the race and gave it our best. That is what counts.

The High Holidays are an excellent time to begin to take our own first steps. We may not know the prayers perfectly. We may not read Hebrew. We just have to start. No one will look down on us. Because every Jew already has irrevocable ties to our Jewish nation. We've each already begun our journey, no matter where we started. Whether we complete our task in life is not something we know at the outset, but each step forward we take is a precious link in the personal chain of tradition and continuity that we are individually and collectively creating.

May this New Year to come be filled with blessings for you and those dear to you. And may you have the privilege of taking your first step on your personal journey toward being the best that you can be.