“Striving For Perfection”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Much of parashat Emor speaks of holiness, faultlessness, striving for perfection and the proper observance of the holy days. In fact, the entire introductory portion of the parasha deals with the purity of the priesthood and the holiness of the sacrifices. Consequently, all gifts that are brought to G-d are expected to be faultless and specifically set apart for sacred purposes. Whether the gift is to be a religious gift or a gift of charity, the donor must seek to ensure its perfection.

Therefore, it is not at all surprising that we read in Leviticus 22:21, “V’eesh kee yahk’reev zeh’vahch sh’lah’meem la’Hashem,”   Anyone who brings a sacrifice of peace-offerings to G-d in fulfillment of a vow clearly uttered, or for a free-will offering of the herd or of the flock, “Ta’meem yee’yeh l’rah’tzohn, kol moom lo yee’yeh bo,” It must be perfect to be accepted, there shall be no blemish upon it.

The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) points out that even those sacrifices that are of a lesser degree of holiness there must not be blemished.

The fact that sacrifices must be of the most select stock was taught cogently in Genesis 4:4, where the Torah relates that both Cain and Abel brought offerings to G-d. In acknowledgment of the bountiful crop, Cain brought “of the fruit of the ground,” while Abel brought “the firstlings of his flock and their choicest.” The Al-mighty accepted Abel and his offering, but not the offering of Cain. From this, our rabbis deduced that Cain’s offering was of the inferior portions of the crop, while Abel chose only the finest of his flock. Hence, the well-known rabbinic aphorism (Berachot 5b), stating that it makes no difference whether one gives more or less, as long as it is done with full devotion of the heart.

Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204), in his Yad Ha’chazaka, Mishne Torah, Issurei Mizbe’ah (Laws of things that are Prohibited for the Altar) 7:11, writes as follows:

The same principle applies to everything done for the sake of G-d: It must be of the finest and best. If one builds a house of prayer it should be finer than his private dwelling. If he feeds the hungry, he should give them the best and sweetest of his table. If he clothes the naked, he should give him the finest of his garments.

In their book, Maimonides and His Heritage, the authors, Idit Dobbs-Weinstein, Lenn Evan Goodman and James Allen Grady, point to a fascinating contrast between the Jewish attitude regarding munificence and that of Aristotle (384–322 BCE). They note that according to the ancient Greek philosophers one must seek out the best when it comes to public buildings, temples, and the like, but not when it comes to charity. Apparently, the ancients were of the opinion that the valuing of charitable acts by others is based on the erroneous assumption on the part of the “free-riders.” The poor obviously believed that there will always be generous persons who will want to help them, who will have the means to do so, and the will to provide for their care. In fact, the ancient philosophers felt that such behavior is destructive of both the means of those who had the ability to give and their will to support them.

One disconcerting outcome of the attitudes fostered by the burgeoning “service economy” that has gained traction in the United States recently, is the notion that if one wants something done properly it is always advisable to call an expert. Many have forsaken all aspiration of becoming proficient in so many important areas of their lives. Instead, they rely more and more on others to do those tasks, since money has been relatively abundant and such efforts are often energy depleting. So while many Americans increasingly search for the path of least resistance and least effort, they have, at the same time, become much less skilled people.

It’s not only that many of us no longer know how to iron, sew or polish silver properly, we have even lost such fundamental skills as cutting our own nails and our hair, and even cleaning our face and skin. All of these roles have been farmed out to professionals. Often, when confronted with basic medical and emotional issues, we feel compelled to run straight to the doctor, at the slightest sign of a sniffle.

This lesson has been driven home to me recently as I have witnessed the increasing takeover of the “shiva home” by professionals who deliver luxurious shiva seats, extra folding chairs for visitors, prayer books, even water coolers, which of course make the shiva experience much more pleasant and easier to manage. But, we must ask ourselves, at what cost? Does it mean that our Chevra Kadisha, burial society members composed of community volunteers, have been relieved of the “burden” of caring for the mourners? Isn’t there great satisfaction, not to mention a great mitzvah, that one gets when caring for mourners? But now the professionals have moved in, obviating the need for the community to be there for those in mourning.

It seems as if the citizens of our country are rapidly becoming a nation of would-be deadbeats. They are losing the passion and the will to seek perfection, to be wholehearted, and ultimately to be compassionate. How often do we now rationalize by saying that professionals can do it better, so why not let them take care of things? Is it perhaps a smokescreen, because we have become too lazy or no longer care?

Striving for perfection should not become a lost art, not only in our relationship with G-d, but also in our relationships with other human beings. The Bible reminds us that we should do things wholeheartedly, so that our actions may find favor in G-d’s eyes and in human eyes.

If we follow that advice, how can we go wrong?

May you be blessed.

Please note: The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33 rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start Saturday night, May 1, and continue all day Sunday, May 2, 2010. The Omer period is the 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a festival because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.