Being Good Enough - Yom Kippur 5780
Being Good Enough
Yom Kippur 5780
The first dozen or so times that I leyened, that I chanted from Torah, I didn’t make a single mistake. I was only leyening very short pieces, six or so verses, and I would start learning them at least a week before I was due to read from Torah. I would learn my leyening to the point that I could sing the verses without needing the physical prompt of the words on a page. And so it went, for a dozen or so leyening experiences. Until, inevitably, I slipped up. I was leyening for Rosh Chodesh, for the New Month, and the person who was having the aliyah - who was reciting the blessings, and for whom I was completing the task of reading from the Torah - was Rabbi Elliot Dorff. For those of you who don’t know, Rabbi Dorff is the Rector at the American Jewish University, where I was studying toward the rabbinate. He’s also a big name halakhic authority (an expert in Jewish law) and a bioethicist.
Fortunately for me, Rabbi Dorff is also quite possibly the kindest person imaginable. But once I slipped up once, I was lost. I had been thrown off-course, and my carefully-prepared reading was thrown off. And worse, the gabbaim - the people around the table who were there to help me - weren’t able to feed me any of the trope, the tune, because the American melodies of Torah reading are different to the British ones. So I stumbled my way through the Torah reading held together mostly by determination, and then slunk away to lick my wounds.
My mistake in leyening wasn’t that I slipped up and pronounced a word incorrectly. My mistake was that I hadn’t allowed myself any room for making mistakes. I had been doomed to fail, because I had set the bar too high. But here’s the thing about Torah reading: it doesn’t have to be perfect. There are standards that it needs to meet with pronunciation, but ‘perfection’ isn’t one of them. A good gabbai knows what needs to be corrected and what doesn’t. In terms of the singing, the most important part is that the sof pasuk, the melody for the end of a verse, is in the right place. In terms of pronunciation, the gabbai has an eye on changing the meaning of the words - ‘u’ and ‘v’ both mean ‘and’, so there’s no need to correct them, but some mispronunciations change the meaning and must be amended. The Torah reading doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to meet certain criteria. It needs to be ‘good enough’.
On Yom Kippur, we are engaging with a kind of self-correction that can seem daunting. This is especially problematic if we see what we are doing as ‘perfecting’ ourselves, an image that we might be moved towards due to the angelic imagery of dressing in white and ignoring physical needs to focus on the spiritual.
However, we started this whole endeavour last night with the assumption of the inevitability of failure. Kol Nidrei, which Marvyn led us in so beautifully last night, is the liturgical-legal formula for the annulling of vows that we will make in the next year. It is the statement that, as hard as we might try to be better, we will still make hasty promises next year, and find ourselves unable to fulfill them. We start not with the assumption that we will leave Yom Kippur perfect, but instead with the assumption that we will continue to be human.
It is, I think, a beautiful message - but a strange one to begin today’s prayers with. Why don’t we fold Kol Nidrei in later in the prayers, and start ourselves off on a more hopeful note? I think that the reason that we have to start with this statement of continuing imperfection is to keep ourselves from setting an impossible standard. If we set ‘perfection’ and ‘purification’ as the standard of what we’re trying to reach today, well - many of us, myself included, would never be able to take those first steps because we know that we’ll never get there. So we start instead by saying: ‘The aim is not “perfect”. The aim is just “better”.’
It’s a lesson that I’ve had to learn not only in my leyening but also in life in general. I’m sure that I’m not the only one here who would quite like to obsess over every minor detail, over every word choice, until I’m happy with the finished product. Ironically, this sermon itself, this teaching on accepting lack of perfection went through multiple stages of re-writing because I wasn’t happy with it. Right now, I’m trying desperately to engage with ‘good enough’. This is a lesson that my friend and mentor, Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, has been trying to impress upon me over these last few months, my first months in the rabbinate. He keeps reminding me: ‘Don’t let the “perfect” be the enemy of the “good”.’
This is a lesson that I think is worth learning also about prayer. If we think of prayer as needing to be perfect, for many of us, that would preclude us from opening our mouths to begin with. The Hebrew word that we translate to ‘perfect’ is ‘tamim’ - a term that we come across in Torah most often when discussing sacrifices. Your sacrificial animal must be ‘tamim’, the Torah tells us. So it’s easy for us to think that our prayers need to be ‘tamimim’, too. After all, both sacrifice and prayer are offerings to the Divine.
Here’s the problem: I just don’t buy that ‘tamim’ means ‘perfect’. What is a perfect sheep? It seems clear to me that there were criteria for a sheep that can be sacrificed and one that cannot. That just like the gabbaim listening to the Torah reading, the Levites in the Temple were looking at the animals with certain criteria in mind. They were not looking for the Platonic ideal of a sheep.
We come across the idea of ‘tamim’ for the first time in the Torah when we meet Noaḥ. Noaḥ is introduced to us as אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹֽרֹתָיו, a righteous man; he was tamim in his generation. When the rabbis of our tradition encounter this text, they don’t tend to read Noaḥ as ‘perfect’ in his generation - in fact, we see Noaḥ acting in ways that defy the idea that he was ‘perfect’. Instead, they read ‘tamim b’dorotav’, tamim in his generation, to mean that Noaḥ was the best that his generation had to offer. He was the best option available for God to choose to act as a leader.
If we take the character of Noaḥ as instructive for what it means to be tamim, then the sacrificial offerings we are looking are the choicest of our flock. We offer our best to God. This, I think, is more helpful when considering the act of prayer. Our prayers do not have to be perfect. We do not need to come to them with purity of mind and soul. What we need to give is the best that we can. Not ‘perfect’. Just ‘good enough’. Your ‘good enough’ right now might be filled with kavanah, with spiritual motivation and intention; or your ‘best’ right now might be forming the words and hoping that the kavanah might follow. Whichever that is, it is a prayer ‘tamim’ - the choicest of your prayers; the best you have to offer right now. And that’s not perfect, but I promise you that it is good enough.
And before you think that someone else in the room has it all figured out, let me disabuse you of that notion: the classical rabbis spoke extensively about the concept of true kavanah, of truly being on the right spiritual page, and one rather famous rabbi, Rav Ḥiyya, admits that he has never once had truly perfect kavanah; that once, he tried his best, but ended up wondering about the political order in which ministers meet the king. To which another rabbi adds, ‘ah, yes; I tend to count the birds’.
I think a lot at this time of year about Leonard Cohen. Not only for his song ‘who by fire’, a song inspired by the High Holy Days prayer the ‘Unetaneh Tokef’, but also for this lyric:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
It’s time to let go of ‘perfect’. ‘Perfect’ gets us nowhere. It gets us nowhere in terms of course-correcting our own lives, of living better - and it gets us nowhere in terms of offering prayer. Let’s try instead for ‘better’, for ‘good enough’.
‘Perfect’ also gets us nowhere in terms of understanding and loving one another.
Rabbi Naḥman of Breslov writes the following about the concept of dan l’khaf zkhut, of judging one another weighted towards merit - that is, giving the benefit of the doubt. He writes that we must judge this way אֲפִלּוּ מִי שֶׁהוּא רָשָׁע גָּמוּר - even when it seems like a person is completely wicked, צָרִיךְ לְחַפֵּשׂ וְלִמְצֹא בּוֹ אֵיזֶה מְעַט טוֹב - that we need to search out and find in him some little bit of goodness, שֶׁבְּאוֹתוֹ הַמְּעַט אֵינוֹ רָשָׁע - because in that tiny part, he is not wicked,
וְעַל יְדֵי זֶה שֶׁמּוֹצֵא בּוֹ מְעַט טוֹב, וְדָן אוֹתוֹ לְכַף זְכוּת, עַל־יְדֵי־זֶה מַעֲלֶה אוֹתוֹ בֶּאֱמֶת לְכַף זְכוּת, וְיוּכַל לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ בִּתְשׁוּבָה
And due to you finding in him that small point of goodness, and judging him towards merit - because of this, you will lift him up truly towards merit, and allow him to return in teshuvah, in repentance.
What Rebbe Naḥman is saying here is that when we give up on looking for perfection in one another, and instead seek out the good in one another, we make each other better. We give each other the ability to improve.
So what I want to leave you with today is that we should never try to be perfect. That by doing so, we set ourselves up for failure at best, and possibly for never even trying. Instead of looking for ‘perfect’, in ourselves, in others, in our prayer - I hope that we can instead settle on ‘good’, on ‘better’, and on ‘good enough’.
I wish you all a ‘good enough’ fast, and a ‘good enough’ year. G’mar ḥatimah tovah.