The Red Heifer: Avoiding Perfectionism

You’re a perfectionist!” When a therapist shared these words with me, I was taken aback, like when I found out that I’m a J on the Myers Briggs Personality Test. Since that time I’ve worked on not being a perfectionist, yet I wondered what was so bad about it? Why do we need to be satisfied with the good enough?

A comment in our Etz Hayim Humash on the red heifer intrigued me. When one had contact with a corpse, he becomes ritually impure and was unable to offer the paschal lamb. A Kohen must burn a 3-year-old unblemished red heifer, mix its ashes with water, hyssop, and crimson yarn, and pour it on the impure man. The man becomes pure and the Kohen who burned the red heifer becomes impure.[1] This is an extremely strange law, the ultimate Hok[2] which the rabbis taught to study for purposes of receiving a law, not to enact on it. While it might not matter in a post-Temple age, as each of us who has been to a cemetery is ritually impure, there is a group known as the Third Temple Society trying to keep the children of Kohanim away from cemeteries and to create a 3-year-old unblemished red heifer to use for the Third Temple. They have been trying for decades but have yet to create an unblemished 3-year-old red heifer.

In order to read Maftir Parah every year, a Maftir which the rabbis say is the second most important after Maftir Zachor, we need to come up with a modern rationalization for it. A note in the Etz Hayim Humash caught my attention. “A modern commentator suggests that the ritual’s purpose is psychological. To heal a person burdened by a sense of wrongdoing, who feels the purity off his or her soul has been compromised, we take an animal completely without blemish and sacrifice it, as if to imply that perfection does not belong in this world. Perfect creatures belong in heaven; this world is given to the inevitably flawed and compromised.”[3]

The lesson of the red heifer for moderns is that perfection is impossible to attain, nor is it desirable. Having read the book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brene Brown writes “Perfectionism isn’t the same thing as striving to be your best…healthy striving is self-focused…perfectionism is other-focused.”[4] The goal in being your authentic self it to own your faults rather than looking to others for acknowledgment.

This week many of us will begin Pesach shopping and cleaning as we get ready for the holiday. The tradition is not to see any of these 5 grains: wheat, barley, oat, spelt, rye. We will clean our pantries, our offices, our kitchens, and our dens. Some of us might clean our cars and go through each and every book on our shelf searching for bread crumbs. To whichever lengths we go let us remember not to strive for perfection in hametz eradication. We need to recognize that each of us will do our best to prepare for the upcoming holiday and that for those areas we overlook that is what the words after the Hametz search and burning are for: “All manner of leaven (Hametz) that is in my possession that I have seen or have not seen, that I have removed or have not removed, shall be null and disowned as the dust of the earth.” This prayer helps us let go of our desire for perfection of a Hametz-free home while not stopping us from doing our best to prepare for the holiday. Perhaps the unblemished red heifer has been a modern-day unicorn precisely to help us recognize to leave our fears at the door-that good enough is exactly where we need to be.

[1] See Numbers 19:1-8

[2] A law without rational explanation

[3] Etz Hayim Humash Page 880

[4] Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who  You Are (Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing, 2010), pgs. 75-76.

Bless Me Rabbi!

          When I was a Student Chaplain at Belleview Hospital in New York City, I’ll never forget going into a patient’s room to see how they’re doing. The patient was agitated and in pain. Her reply was “Bless me rabbi!” As a rabbinical student I had never learned how to do spontaneous prayer. I didn’t know what to say and, in the end, I said something similar to our Mi Sheberach for the ill. The patient closed her eyes and immediately seemed to feel comfort and ease. Since that encounter, I have learned how to do personalized, spontaneous prayer.

          Often Jews are uncomfortable with spontaneous prayer from the heart. We rely on the words 3030in our Siddurim, our prayerbooks. Yet spontaneous prayer is part and parcel of our tradition. Isaac’s meditating in the field[1] is an act of spontaneous prayer. Moses saying אל נא רפא נא לה “Please God heal her please!”[2] regarding Miriam’s leprosy is as well. In Parshat Shemini, we read “Aaron lifted his hands towards the people and blessed them.”[3] We don’t know what Aaron said or how he said it, but we know the result. The presence of God appeared before everyone, fire came forth and God consumed the sacrifice on the altar. Aaron’s blessing Israel results in the Divine Presence emanating directly before the people.

          There have been times in my career where I have felt inadequate to the task at hand. One of them is when I have been asked to bless people. It likely has to do with my father being a doctor and knowing that he has saved peoples’ lives. In comparison, what does a rabbi do: save their souls? Over time, however, I have learned that we should never underestimate the power of a heartfelt prayer. There have been studies that when people know they are being prayed for, all the more so when they are being prayed for in person, they fare better. Is this a placebo effect or is this part of something beyond human comprehension? We can understand principles of physics, but metaphysics is more challenging to know and the exact spiritual connection between people is perhaps the most difficult of all.

There is a power to prayer. When we pray for someone on the Mi Sheberach List with all our heart and all our soul, we feel a connection to him/her that is profound. Similarly, when in the moment we utter a prayer from the heart, we feel something deep. That is what prayer is all about עבודה שבלב, the worship of the heart.

The next time someone asks you to bless them or to pray for them, recognize that we have a strong basis for it in our tradition, including in Parshat Shemini when Aaron lifts his hands and blesses Israel. You don’t need a High Priest or a Rabbi: each of us is independently a spiritual agent who can connect with others through invoking heartfelt prayers asking the Holy One to bring a complete healing of body, mind, and spirit. In addition to blessing one another, we can bless God through the beautiful words of the Hallelujah.

[1] Genesis 24:63

[2] Numbers 12:13

[3] Leviticus 9:22