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The Prices We Pay in the Quest for Perfection and Power – Yom Kippur

October 13, 2005

A little boy carried his bat and ball into his backyard and said, “I am the best batter in the world.” He tossed the ball up, swung and missed. Again he said, “I am the best batter in the world,” and tossed the ball up again, took a big swing and missed again. Then he took a deep breath, and said with even more conviction, “The best hitter in the world is at bat,” whereupon he swung hard and missed yet again. “Wow!” he exclaimed, “I am the best pitcher in the world.” You can try to bend the truth, but you cannot reshape reality.

Do you remember times in your life when you thought to yourself, “No matter what I do, it is never good enough”? As children, our parents sometimes frustrated us because we felt that when it came to grades, goals, base hits, points or rebounds, ‘good enough’ was ‘never enough.’ As adults, we set high standards for ourselves and when we fall short, we can be very tough on ourselves. We know that we cannot be perfect, but many of us are unwilling to rest content with whatever ranks just below it.

I see this with great frequency among young adults, particularly those in high school. There is so much pressure to succeed: to get A’s, score high on the SAT, and get into a preferred college. In the bookstores at most major universities, the ‘parenting section’ has books with the following titles for expectant parents and parents with babies:

Born to Win; Pre-Law for Preschoolers; Toddling Through Calculus. Many of our best and brightest are also our saddest and most frustrated. They try so hard and sometimes they fall short; or they exceed their expectations of themselves and are delighted by their progress only to discover that they are not where, or what, their parents want them to be. Self-worth is replaced by self-doubt. When children return home from playing baseball, basketball, soccer or tennis, the first question they are often asked is, “Did you win?” Not, “Did you do well?” or “Did you have a good time?” but “Did you win?” Winning is everything, or so it seems. It should not surprise us that this standard applies at work as well. The quest to achieve the coveted title of ‘partner’, to be awarded tenure, or to earn a title or desired position can become the ‘holy grail’ of one’s existence, the standard by which success is measured: not how many people you helped along the way or how many lives you touched, but how many deals you consummated, cases you won, and transactions you completed. Rabbis are not immune from this, by the way. In the rabbinic world, one’s ‘worth’ as a rabbi is often gauged by the size of the congregation, the length of time one has been there, and the salary one receives.

In one of my favorite ‘Peanuts’ cartoons, penned by the brilliant observer of human behavior, Charles Schultz, Lucy tells Charlie Brown, “I have examined my life and found it to be without flaw. Therefore, I am going to hold a ceremony and present myself with a medal. I will then give a moving acceptance speech. After that, I’ll greet myself in the receiving line.” She concludes, somewhat sadly, “When you are perfect, you have to do everything yourself.”

Where do we get the idea that we must be perfect to merit love and acceptance? From parents who set high bars and lofty goals, telling us that they want us to do the best we can but leaving us with the feeling that it was never enough? From teachers who far more often pointed out what we had done wrong instead of praising us for what we got right? From rabbis who preached about the sin of moral slippage, shining a bright light on every ethical and ritual infraction we were capable of?

Perfection is a terrible burden. Psychologist Daniel Levinson talks about people burdened with what he calls “the tyranny of the dream.” It is not good enough to succeed, you must be number one! The refrain “No one remembers who comes in second” has worked its way into our hearts and minds. It is not enough to be compassionate, you must also be competitive. But competition often breeds contempt, and not just for ‘the other’ but often for ‘the self.’ How do we feel about ourselves when we – in American parlance – lose? What are the implications of not winning enough? Leo Rotan, a psychiatric social worker, made a study of the maxims “believed in by men who had heart attacks, and matched them to control subjects who did not. The heart patients believed that they needed to be perfect and so they demanded perfection of themselves. The healthy ones were more accepting of failure” {The Jewish Way by Rabbi Irving Greenberg: Summit Books, New York, 1988; p. 209}.

We get caught in traps that we set for ourselves. It is important to set high standards, but not at the cost of berating those – including ourselves and especially our children – who fall short. We Jews have a distinctive form of child abuse, and it is called ‘disappointment.’ We always say with justifiable pride how much we value education. We talk about class ranking, GPA, SAT scores and college acceptance letters, but we do not speak very often about a child who takes a year off from school to learn more about his place in the world, or to better define future choices that she will make. We are almost apologetic about that, when in fact we ought to be affirming it! It takes courage to get off the conveyor belt on which everything proceeds in linear fashion, and where deviation is disparaged.

Do you think that the people whom we extol in our tradition were perfect? Do you think they proceeded from points ‘A’ to ‘Z’ without pause, detours or abrupt stops? We tell only parts of their stories because the full text can be disheartening. We extol Noah as a master craftsman who built an ark, but he was not a mensch: not once did he ask God to save people deemed to be less righteous than he. The ancient rabbis had such disdain for Noah that they constantly refer to him as “righteous in his generation”: implying that if he had lived in the generation of Abraham or Moses, he would have suffered greatly by comparison. Abraham? Abraham had a sterling reputation: he fed the hungry, was hospitable to strangers, prayed for barren women and championed the cause of those who had no one to speak on their behalf. But his personal life was abysmal, and his family life was a case study in dysfunctional relationships. He was so busy doing for others that he rarely made the time to meet the needs of those for whom he said he cared the most.

Moses? The greatest leader our People has ever known was frequently stressed out, petulant and angry, not that we should be surprised. Look who he had to deal with: us! He called us a “stiff-necked people.” To be “stiff-necked” is to be unable or unwilling to turn your head in order to see other possibilities, so fixated are you on kvetching, or so resistant to change. You cannot envision possibility because you only see problems. For such people, “potential” is a watchword for disaster and disappointment, not for growth and renewal. Change is always seen as traumatic, not creative.

And God? Dare I say it? God created a world that ended up being a major disappointment. As that world was destroyed, Noah and his family floated above it all. After forty days of deluge, the ark set down on Mount Ararat and the land was eventually repopulated. Then Noah got drunk and his descendants filled the world with violence and cruelty. The narrative in the Book of Genesis about the tower of Babel is a story about deconstruction. We have been trying to put the pieces back together ever since.

Each one of us is broken. Somewhere on the path of life all of us have been hurt, disappointed, rejected, and refused. We have been doubted and denied. We have stumbled and fallen. And we have risen again, much as we did as a People at Sinai. The original Covenant was fashioned by God, untouched by human flaws. Then we imperfect beings created the Golden Calf, and Moses despaired of us and smashed the tablets. It was almost as if the tablets were too pure to be left in human hands. We spent the next forty days at the foot of Mount Sinai working through the heartbreak. God wrote the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments but the second set was a joint venture. God enabled Moses to join in the process of fashioning the second set of words of eternal wisdom, and in doing so Moses learned the truth that even when shattered, things can be renewed. Not perfection but renewal.

Ours is also the quest for power. We want to be empowered and powerful. We want to be in control, though we know that is not always possible or healthy. There is a statement in Chinese philosophy that says, “When two great forces collide, the victory will go to the one that knows how to yield.” Sometimes softness is strength. How tough do we think we need to be in our relationships and professions? How often do we feel the need to dominate? How often do we need to be right? How many times do we say “do it my way” because that is our habit instead of turning for advice to people we know who have our best interests at heart?

We have all heard the phrase, “Pride goes before the fall.” King David and his son, Absalom, were estranged, as parents and children occasionally are. Second Samuel, chapter 14, describes a critical moment in their relationship: “Absalom came to the king and flung himself face down to the ground before the king. And the king kissed Absalom” {2Samuel 14:33}. On the face of it, reconciliation had been achieved. But throughout the verse, David is always called “king.” He is never referred to as Absalom’s father. Later, grieving at the sight of his son’s lifeless body, David might well have recalled the moment when pride and position took precedence over parenthood, and the tenuous tie to relationship was severed.

About three years ago, a woman whom I met while doing hospital rounds told me of the time that she sat down with her sons and their wives, and said to them that since she was essentially alone in the world – her husband had died ten years earlier – and they were busy raising families about two hours from here, she wanted some assurance that as she aged and became more dependent on them, they would care for her. They expressed their love for her and told her that whatever she needed would be provided. I learned from her that they are very successful businessmen living in large McMansions with four car garages, adjacent guest houses and vacation homes in Colorado. They think nothing of flying to London to attend the theatre, or chartering a jet for a getaway weekend in the Caribbean. They live in the highest stratospheres of the financial world, and they share their largesse with her. She considers herself blessed and I was sure of it.

Last year I saw her again, this time at her palatial apartment in Center City. She remembered our conversation when she was in the hospital, and she invited me over to chat. A nurse answered the door and brought me into the den, asking that I wait there. I looked around the room. The furniture was rich mahogany and the plush chairs were like those that I associate with private clubs where people meet in sitting rooms to chat. Shelves were filled with books, and even more so with small framed pictures of her sons and daughters-in-law with her grandchildren. I was mesmerized by the grandeur of the room when a discreet cough alerted me to her arrival. She was in a wheelchair. She had aged dramatically. It was obvious that she was quite ill. 24 hour nursing care assured her that any discomfort or emergency would receive an instant response.

Cancer was taking its toll on her. She was not angry or bitter, but sad that she would not see her grandchildren grow up. Mention of her grandchildren motivated me to ask her about her sons and their families: How were they? When did she last see them? That’s when the tears came. She had not seen them for many months. “They call but don’t visit,” she tells me. They are too busy. She implores them to come, they assure her they will, but they don’t. Then they call from London to tell her they have seen the most wonderful play – how much she would have enjoyed it! – and that they have been thinking about her. They phone from Colorado to tell her how great the skiing is and how she would love sipping tea in the chalet, and they’ll make plans to see her when they return. But they don’t come. They do, however, send her their best. It is then that she tells me, “I asked them if they would continue to care for me as I grew older and feebler, not if they would take care of me. I know that they can provide me with the best that money can buy, but I need them!”

She has two eminently successful, powerful sons living what seem to be perfect lives: rich, well traveled, they belong to the ‘right’ clubs and vacation in glamorous places and yet, for all that, their lives are flawed. For all the tests they passed with flying colors, all the hurdles they cleared with room to spare, and all the deals they consummated and money they have made, in the end, they failed. They failed to realize that the goal in life is not to be perfect, it is to perfect the world through mitzvot. The goal is not to acquire power for the sake of being powerful, it is to use the power you have to benefit others.

After she died, one of the sons called me. We chatted for a while and then he said, “I should have been there for her.” I replied, “You were there for her, but you were never with her, and that is what your mother needed the most.”

“God,” said a tzaddik, “has plenty of angels. What God needs are holy human beings.”

That would be perfect. That would be powerful.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin