(Presented at the ACC-GTM Convention, June 2012)
Do me a favor, please. You can close your eyes or leave them open; it’s up to you. We're Reform. I’m going to ask you to think of a word. Just one word, the first one that comes to your mind when I ask you to name a part of your body that you absolutely adore. (Now I’m asking the first word that comes to your mind when I ask you to name a part of your body that you really dislike and would love to change. Hold on to those thoughts.
I don’t want to get all Debbie Downer on you, but I need to say up front that I offer this drash in memory of a woman who was a huge influence in my life in the past few years: Nora Ephron, who died on Tuesday night. That's because she taught me what we're going to learn from parashat Chukat: that imperfect perfection is the perfect kind of perfection.
The red heifer. God’s idea of a sense of humor. Even the great and wise King Solomon couldn’t figure out what was up with that cow.
That’s probably because King Solomon didn’t have Nora Ephron or Tyrian Lannister, the Imp of Westeros, to guide him. She would have gotten it immediately simply by virtue of her living Ina world surrounded by supposedly perfect people. And Tyrian, Game of Thrones' dangerously powerfully sexy "half-man" dwarf could have told him about the long-term pains of imperfection and short-lived triumphs of overcoming the odds.
They would have told Solomon the bottom line: that the whole point of the exercise is the exercise. It’s the “Aha” moment when you realize that the non-existence of that perfect cow combined with not being able to do something the way we think God is commanding adds up to the potential of attempting the impossible. Do you see where I’m coming from here?
Here’s some back story. In early June, 23 rabbinic colleagues and I learned with Rabbi Myriam Klotz at an HUC-JIR alumni program on Jewish yoga. It was a physical, emotional and spiritual huge risk for me. You see, I’m someone who, even with over a year of yoga practice and 6-out-of-7 days at a gym, considers herself a klutz. I have spent a lifetime dealing with debilitating negative body image issues. Just to register for this class, being willing to expose myself makeup-less in yoga clothes in the HUC-JIR Chapel was spiritually enormous. But as I began to write this devar Torah, I became aware that the massive amounts of Alleve I downed during that week, bags of ice, an open mind, three extraordinary teachers of yoga and Torah, and loving colleagues had led me to an unexpected understanding of the parah adumah.
You see, I had been afraid of appearing imperfect. I would have been the false parah adumah amidst my colleagues’ many perfections. I would have been that cow whose few gray hairs about a decade ago so badly disappointed the crazies who pray for the building of the 3rd Temple in Jerusalem. Unlike Nora Ephron, I didn't just feel bad about my neck (the title of her great book); I resented my neck. And throat. And all the other imperfections that screamed at me when I looked in the mirror or tried on a bathing suit (guys, is buying a bathing suit as excruciating for you as it is for women?).
But after those four days at HUC, it turned out I wasn’t a false parah adumah, just someone with many imperfections. All the texts on middot begged me to realize that as much as I hated my imperfections, they were mine, they made me who I am today, and they stand side by side with my many perfections. To want to be perfect was arrogance of the first order.
So here’s the thing that my week of yoga - and Nora Ephron and Tyrian Lannister - taught me about this chok, the mobius mind game of the parah adumah: the challenge of God’s logical illogic, is to be willing to stand in front of God even with - especially with - our imperfections. Imperfections are part of God’s plan. They are the essence of the breathtaking and mind blowing insight of writer Jay Michaelson, “Often we’re told that we’re unbeautiful or imperfect, too skinny or too fat – or simply too ordinary to be miraculous. But" - and here's the kicker - "... such is not the Jewish way. …that which seems to be imperfect is usually just fine.” (God In Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness and Embodied Spiritual Practice, Jay Michaelson)
Back to my opening exercise: I’ll bet that it was easier to come up with a body part you disliked than one you loved. The problem is that pursuing an illusion of perfection is a waste of precious time, energy and spirit. Abusing our minds, body and soul to attain unattainable perfection flies in face of believing that God created us b’tzelem Elohim. In the words of the 12-step community, trying to be perfect can make you perfectly crazy.
I believe that God gave me a pure soul, and every day I acknowledge that God created my body with great wisdom, with those veins and arteries opening and closing in perfect harmony. If our daily recitation of those two prayers means anything, it is that while achieving perfection may be a spiritual goal, the point is not to achieve perfection but rather to move in that direction. If God had wanted me to be hubristically perfect, I wouldn’t need a Asher Yatzar or Elohai, ha-neshamah she-natata bi, just constant upgrades via plastic surgery, multiple hours in a gym, life unaffirming near-starvation dieting and overdone self reflection. None of these are in God’s plan. God isn’t looking for another parah adumah (sorry, 3rd Temple’ites). God wants us to value and love the perfectly imperfect ordinary parot adumot that we are.
Every so often you hear stories of a (maybe) perfect red heifer born in Israel. The latest Snopes-worthy rumor was in 2004. The cow turned out to be imperfect. Just like me, just like us. How cool is that?