by Rabbi Jared H. Saks
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782
Last year, Kirk and I finally carved out the time to complete a project we’d envisioned when Zak was born. On the wall next to our stairs, we hung over seventy photographs of our relatives and ancestors going back 13 generations. We want Zak to grow up seeing the faces of the people who came before him. As you can imagine, the quality of the photographs varies tremendously, with some of the oldest dating back to the Civil War era. I love some of the imperfections though. It’s not the poor quality of them that gets my attention. Rather, it is the imperfect photography that tells a story about the people in front of and behind the lens. On the wall there’s a series of four photos of my mother, her parents, and her sister. Each one took a picture of the other three. Given each of their ages and skills – I think my mother was about 6 years old at the time – the photographs vary greatly in quality. It’s in these variations that the pictures’ stories are told.
Chances are, if these photographs had been taken with today’s technology, they wouldn’t exist. How many times have you taken a picture of someone only to have them look at the screen of your phone and then say, “Delete that!” or taken a dozen selfies before finding the right one to post on social media? We are quick to get rid of pictures that we deem imperfect. Digital technology allows us to scrap our mistakes without second thought: the lighting isn’t quite right, people are out of focus, she isn’t smiling, their eyes are half closed, his smile isn’t ‘real.’ Today’s technology allows us to dispose immediately of the photos that we decide aren’t exactly what we would have wanted. We delete pictures that, at first glance, are mishaps, but on rare occasions “we appreciate only later as accidental masterpieces,” like the series of four pictures of my mother’s family that capture each of them quite perfectly in that moment in time.
All too often we strive for perfection. We are afraid of being judged and deemed as imperfect. We let ourselves think that imperfection equates with unacceptable and think less of ourselves when we fall short. We need to remind ourselves that we are perfect in our imperfection. We are human and “being human is such a complicated challenge that all of us will make mistakes in the process of learning how to do it right.” The mistakes we make are not measures of our worth, but rather experiences that help us grow. As Dan Nichols composed in his version of Asher Yatzar, “I thank You for my life, body and soul / Help me realize I am beautiful and whole / I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken, too / I will live each day as a gift I give to you.”
While this season calls us to engage in cheshbon hanefesh, the self-accounting of our souls, it is not meant to be a time of self-flagellation. Some of the liturgy of these High Holy Days is ancient and reflects a theology that we no longer hold; yet, its words are powerful to us because they’ve been uttered by generations of Jews. But we shouldn’t let ourselves become consumed with its archaic theology. Our theology today does not tell us, on account of our sins, who shall live and who shall die. And, yet, this season can easily lead us not towards repentance and return, the real meanings of teshuvah, but rather towards stifling guilt. This, however, is not what God desires of us.
If this is how we approach our self-reflection during these Days of Awe, we are “in serious denial about the nature of the Deity with whom we are in relationship.” We often gloss over difficult Torah texts painting a picture of a God who is perfect. But there are plenty of Torah passages that depict a different image of God, an imperfect image of God. Consider when God plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and it is Abraham who has to ask, “Should not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Or when the Israelites construct the golden calf and God’s response is, “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them,” and Moses has to talk God off the ledge. If we examine Torah closely, we will see an imperfect God.
If we are created in the image of God, what does that say about us? We often talk about ourselves being created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and think that that is only speaking of God’s good qualities. But God is imperfect. “Being modeled after God reflects both what is positive and negative about us.” We often retain a child’s relationship with God, the way that a child believes that their parents know everything. As we mature from childhood, we see the imperfections in our parents, teachers, and those whom we admire. These imperfections don’t have to make us think less of them. Rather, seeing these imperfections makes those people human and can help us accept our own imperfections.
We often criticize ourselves for not being able to do something that is beyond our control. “A problem can be fixed, but a true limitation requires adjustment of expectations and acceptance of an imperfect self.” When we set unreasonable expectations for ourselves, we set ourselves up for failure. “The illusion that we can control events if we do everything right, that we can make people love us if we do things right, and that we can guarantee happy endings by deserving them is an illusion, and a very destructive one.” These past 18 months have certainly taught us this. There’s so much beyond our control. We want the world to be something that it isn’t right now. But in all of the imperfections of our lives today, we may yet find in years to come, the beauty of this moment, in spite of all its flaws.
The world is not perfect and neither are we. Accepting this is not giving in. We are human and that means that we won’t always get it right. People will think more of us, not less of us, when they see that we are imperfect. And God will think more of us, too. “God does not stop loving us every time we do something wrong, and neither should we stop loving ourselves and each other for being less than perfect.” In Pirke Avot, Rabbi Tarfon reminds us that it is not our responsibility to do all of the work, but at the same time we do not have the luxury of not taking part in it. We have to do something, but only as much as we can. And there’s nothing wrong if what we can do now is not what we would have been able to do before the pandemic.
I believe that what God does expect is that we learn from the mistakes we make, but still see our imperfections as part of a larger whole. In the beginning of our narrative, God stayed close, just like a parent closely watches over a newborn. In the Garden of Eden we were almost never alone. Throughout the Bible, God kept interceding. But as the narrative progresses, right up to this day, God continued to take a step back, to give us more autonomy. But with that comes the likelihood of imperfection.
Author Jodi Hills offers this prayer:
I wish for you an imperfect life— and all the wonder that life can bring… the wealth that comes from knowing loss, the tears that find their way to laughter, the joy that grows after the rain, and the love, felt deepest, by those who have been carved by pain. I hope that you can value this imperfection, hold on to it, so it gives you such comfort that you will dare embrace the beauty of all the imperfect lives that surround you, and then you will be perfectly free to step to the beat of your own imperfect heart, and you will have truly lived.
Help us God, as we look through the memories of the past year, to see the opportunities for change and growth, but to acknowledge that some of those imperfections will mature into things of beauty in the future. Shanah tovah u’metukah. Have happy, healthy, and sweet new year.
 Kimmelman, Michael, “The Polaroid: Imperfect, Yet Magical,” The New York Times, December 28, 2008.
 Kushner, p. 7.
 Dan Nichols, Asher Yatzar, Beautiful and Broken, 2015.
 Mogel, p. 1.
 Genesis 18:25.
 Exodus 32:10a.
 Mogel, p. 2.
 Mogel, p. 41.
 Kushner, p. 14.
 Kushner, p. 54.
 Kushner, p. 4.
 Jodi Hills, An Imperfect Life. Minneapolis: Tristan Publishing, Inc., 2008.