I was re-reading a wonderful book by Rachel Naomi Remen called “My Grandfather’s blessings” and in it she tells the story of a woman who was what we would describe as a “neat freak” everything in her home had to be perfect: clean, ordered, polished, shining. But then she contracted cancer, the treatments left her exhausted and she was unable to keep her home the way she had in the past. She had to let go of the idea of perfection, and just allow things to be. After she recovered, she reflected on the way she had once been and laughed saying: she drove everyone crazy, even at times resented guests for messing her ordered, perfect home.
I wonder sometimes if that is how God felt about humanity at the beginning. God, according to Genesis, created a perfect world, paradise on earth, the garden of Eden, where every living thing coexisted in balance and harmony. And then God messed it all up by adding humans, with our free will and our ability to make choices, both good and bad; the perfection of the world was destroyed. But like Rachel’s patient, maybe God has come to appreciate the lack of perfection, and to see that there is beauty and perfection in imperfection. Rachel Remen says, “the marks life leaves on everything it touches transforms perfection into wholeness.” And perhaps humanity’s ability to be less than perfect is actually part of what makes the world whole and beautiful.
This week’s portion, mishpatim reflects a little of our approach to imperfection. Following on the heels of the giving of the commandments, the revelation at Sinai, the awe-filled moment where we hear the voice of God, comes the laws in the portion of mishpatim. These laws, unlike others, do not deal with the lofty ideals, instead they are about the nitty gritty, day to day minutia of life: the act of living in this imperfect world. They are an acknowledgement that even when we arrive in the Promised Land, the place for which we have yearned, and of which we dreamed, there will not be perfection, because we will inhabit the land. Humans with all our flaws and mistakes, all our wrongdoing and missteps will be the ones to establish this new world, this radical beginning. And we will go astray, we will make mistakes but we can turn these imperfections into the holiness and wholeness of which Naomi speaks, when we strive to do right, when we curb our inclinations to do wrong and instead channel it to the good. This portion confronts us with slavery, oppression, it reminds us of our instinct to ignore or worse harm, the most vulnerable, it calls on us to strive to be our best selves, to aim for the best that is within us, knowing that we all have our imperfections. Mishpatim calls on us to acknowledge that we do not always walk the path of perfection, and that what it is to be human, but what we do with those flaws, with those moments where we walk away from the path, that is where we can find wholeness and holiness.
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio