The Perfect Sermon

Parshat Shemini –  April 2, 2016


Today I’m going to give the “Perfect Sermon.” Either, It will be concise, brilliant, inspirational, motivational, funny, and under 12 minutes, or it will simply be about the topic of perfection. (Or maybe both?) I’ll let you decide afterwards.

Perfection. It’s something that we think about a great deal. We strive to earn a perfect score on a test to prove we know the material. We yearn love it when our team or favorite pitcher throws a perfect game, retiring every single batter he faces, something that’s only happened 21 times in baseball history. For years, Lexus advertised their cars with the slogan “the relentless pursuit of perfection,” trying to demonstrate that their cars had been better thought out than any other. The Preamble of our Constitution asks us “to form a more perfect union.” Perfection. It’s something that we strive for, but rarely ever truly achieve.

In many ways, this week we are reading the “perfect parsha.” Not because this portion is more perfect than any other, but because so many aspects of it deal with the pursuit of perfection. It begins with a description of the first sacrifices offered after the anointing of the Kohanim, the Priests.

Moses instructs his brother Aaron, “Take a calf of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, perfect, and bring them before the Lord.” (Lev 9:2) It continues with a narrative of two of Aaron’s children, Nadav and Avihu, who do something they’re not supposed to – they bring forth what the Torah calls אש זרה, an alien fire. Or to put it another way, the fire and sacrifice they brought was not perfect. As a punishment for their actions, God takes their life. The parsha then continues with the laying out of many of our laws of kashrut. The characteristics an animal must meet in order to be considered kosher. Here again, if an animal does not fall perfectly into all of the categories, it is not kosher and we may not eat it. Similarly, although they are not fully presented here, our laws for kosher slaughter also have a strong emphasis on perfection. A tiny nick in a knife, or a pause in the cutting motion for even the briefest of seconds will render the animal not kosher. Everything must be perfect.

Additionally, as Josh told us earlier, today we observe Shabbat Parah. The occasion on which we read about the Red Heifer. This section begins,

דַּבֵּ֣ר ׀ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֣וּ אֵלֶיךָ֩ פָרָ֨ה אֲדֻמָּ֜ה תְּמִימָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֵֽין־בָּהּ֙ מ֔וּם אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־עָלָ֥ה עָלֶ֖יהָ עֹֽל׃

“Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect, and on which no yoke has been laid.” (Num 19:2)

Again here, lots of talk about perfection. In fact, the Rabbis would later specify that even the presence of two hairs of a different color would invalidate the cow, and that every hair on it had to be absolutely straight, to show it had never been yoked and used for labor. Everything about the cow must be absolutely perfect.

It’s intimidating isn’t? Trying to be perfect all the time? Having to go out of our way to make sure everything is just so and meets every qualification? With standards like these, it’s a wonder anyone sets out to do anything. In fact some of our standards are virtually impossible to achieve.

In the case of the Red Heifer, the Mishnah teaches that there were only ever eight throughout history, and none in the last 2,000 years. The standards were so high, that no animal since then has ever qualified. Now in this case, I’m alright with that result. Personally, I don’t miss performing the Red Heifer sacrifice a great deal. But in other instances, is this a good thing? Does trying to achieve the perfect get in the way of achieving something good?

In logical thinking, there’s a concept called the Nirvana Fallacy. This occurs when someone compares a realistic solution with an idealized one, and dismisses and discounts the realistic solution as a result of comparing it to the “perfect world,” the impossible standards. For example, someone may argue why bother having seat belts in cars, since people are still going to die anyway? Clearly this misses the point of all the lives seat belts do save, even though it is not every one. This line of thinking also comes up in the story I’m sure many of us have heard about starfish.

A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t hope to save all these starfish!”

The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I saved that one!”

Adapted from an original essay by Loren Eiseley the story has a powerful message. Are we intimidated by trying to achieve a nearly impossible task, or can we make a difference in some smaller way? Do we need to break ourselves in the pursuit of perfection, or is there a point where we can say we are doing enough?

On Wednesday evening, a few of us gathered together with Rabbi Matt Berkowitz, directer of Israel Programs for the Jewish Theological Seminary. Rabbi Berkowitz taught about Rudolf Kasztner, a Jewish-Hungarian journalist and lawyer during the times of the Holocaust. When the Nazis invaded Germany in 1944, Kasztner negotiated with Adolf Eichmann to allow 1,684 jews to be spared. Kasztner organized a train that carried these Jews to Switzerland, saving their lives. Seems like a happy ending. However, nine years later, after moving to Israel, Kasztner was accused and brought to trial for being a Nazi collaborator – the thought being since he negotiated with the Nazis instead of fighting them, he was complicit in the death of the other hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews.

But is this fair or is this another case of the perfect undermining the good? Do we hold Kasztner responsible as a collaborator, or do we recognize his achievement in saving nearly 1,700 Jews? The Kasztner story has many twists and turns to it that we can discuss later, but for now I’ll suggest that the prevailing opinion in the room on Wednesday was that we can recognize him for what he did and view Kasztner as a hero.

Oftentimes we are caught up in the ideal, the perfect. And while yes, it is without question admirable to have high standards and push ourselves towards achieving them, do these impossible standards of perfection hurt us in the end more than they help us?

I’d like to suggest that the answer is somewhere in between. Without striving for perfection, we can often set out sights too low. We need to aim high in all that we do, in work, in faith, and in life. Yet at the same time we need to be able to realize when we have been successful, when we have made a difference. I am interested in the qualification of the Red Heifer as needed two hairs to disqualify it. Why not only one? Maybe that’s the Torah’s original stipulation. That was the way of saying, we know there really won’t ever be one that’s totally perfect, so if one is mostly perfect, that’s ok too. Can we carry this lesson out today? Sure there are many areas where we’ll strive for perfection, but can we remind ourselves of the two hairs. The points at which we recognize we have done something good, and striving to do more isn’t necessary.

I’ll confess. No, Parshat Shemini is not the perfect parsha as I said at the beginning. But I think I can still say it is the almost perfect parsha.

Shabbat Shalom.