Jewish Perfection

Perfection is definitely not a Jewish thought or attribute. Consider the patriarchs of Judaism such as Noah who gets drunk, Jacob who steals his brother’s birthright by misleading his father Isaac, and even Moses, the greatest of all Jews, speaks with a lisp and disobeys God. And we could have a field day talking about King David. All of these people are examples of the far from perfect and flawed heroes that God talks, communicates and makes promises to in the Tanakh (Jewish bible).

Beyond individuals, the Jewish people as a whole are definitely not perfect. One immediately remembers the “Golden Calf” incident or other times when the Jews as a “stiff-necked people” disobeyed or did not listen to God. And yet isn’t it curious that despite not being perfect, we are still the Chosen people?

Why both on an individual and group level does God communicate and make a covenant with a people that is not perfect, but sometimes deeply flawed?

I believe the answer lies in the story of the wine steward and the baker who were in Pharaoh’s jail with Joseph (He was thrown in there for being falsely accused by Potifar’s wife. Genesis 39)

The baker was in there because the Pharaoh found a stone in a loaf of bread and the wine steward was in the dungeon because a fly was found in the wine glass of Pharaoh. The subsequent fates of the two are instructive, the wine steward is freed and is reinstated to his former position and the baker is put to death. Why?

The Rabbi of Ishbitz (Chassidic Rabbi around 1840 in Poland) teaches that the baker was aiming for perfection, and tried to keep all of the bad stuff that could come into the bread from getting in, while the wine steward knew there was only so much that he control and that once he poured the wine, a fly could fly into it and there was nothing he could do about it.

In this story is the proof text that perfection is not the goal of Judaism or God. The Ishbitzer Rebbe tells us that the experience of life is God, so therefore God is the fly in your wine cup. Perfection is not the goal of life, life is the goal of life and experiencing it with all of its ups and down is the experience of God.

The baker on the other hand is completely unprepared for when something bad happens. His goal is perfection, so what happens when a stone gets into a loaf of bread, the baker dies. To the wine steward the baker’s stone is like the fly, something that happens and is part of the experience of life. But to the baker, a fly in the wine cup is a stone, something that is unacceptable, a mark of imperfection and something to fight against. In the end, the wine steward triumphs and lives and the baker dies.

And this highlights why perfection is not a Jewish ideal. Without the mistakes and the problems, or the flies and stones in our lives, how would we ever learn, grow and evolve into deeper, more aware and stronger people? And this is what Judaism teaches us, that when bad stuff that happens, when flies land in our wine cup, they are part of life and a part of God. The sooner we learn to accept the slings and arrows of life and realize we will never be perfect, the stronger we will be and the better people we will become.

This isn’t to mean that you shouldn’t strive to be a good person or be the best of your abilities, but that instead you recognize that shit happens. A favorite country singer of mine, Pat Green, says it best:

Wouldn’t life be awfully boring,
If the good times were all that we had?

If there was a Jewish perfection it would rest on learning to appreciate the flies and stones in our lives along our brief but wonderful journey and to try as much as possible to use them to our advantage and to see the Godliness and holiness in them.

Shabbat Shalom.

*This blog posting is heavily influenced and taught to me by Rabbi Avi Poupko from Pardes