Nothing is Perfect – Parashat Mishpatim
When my children were born, they each represented perfection to me: ten fingers and ten toes, good APGAR scores and a wail that was music to my ears. However, it did not take long for the initial bliss to turn towards more challenging moments that, while minimizing the perceived perfection, never diminished my wife’s and my love for these amazing people. Whether sleepless nights, car sickness, colic or, with time and maturation, one’s child proving to be a non-typical learner or demonstrating some physical, emotional or mental challenge, parents quickly learn that this sense of perfection is fleeting. And yet, regardless of their imperfections, we continue to find both beauty and reward.
Last week in the cycle of Torah reading we read Parshat Yitro, immediately followed this week by Mishpatim. The succession of these portions tie together revelation at Sinai, the laws on stone that are received and the values and laws we are to follow each day. In summary, we receive 10 commandments that serve as an emblem for all of the laws we keep: those between humans and God and those between humans and their fellow humans. Most of us who have read ahead know well that in Parshat Ki Tisa (Ex 32:19) Moses breaks the tablets in a fit of rage when he sees the Israelites, led by his siblings, worshiping a golden calf. The Israelite people never get a chance to see the tablets whole and learn them, understand them or incorporate them into their lives. They really only know the tablets shattered in pieces and broken.
In the world in which we live, perfection is something too many strive for in every arena possible. SAT scores, GPAs, sports, home décor, cars, clothes and technology all need to be “perfect” to be maximized. But is there really such thing as “perfect”? And, if so, how long can perfection last?
Judaism is a religion where we demonstrate that nothing is perfect. On Passover we pour out from our cups so they will not overflow and we eat broken bread. On Rosh Hashanah we hear the broken sounds of the ram’s horn. On Sukkot we dwell in a temporary and non-sturdy hut. At a Jewish wedding we conclude the ceremony with the breaking of the glass. I always tell couples who are getting married that we shatter the glass to represent that while a wedding can feel like elation and perfection, the life that follows is not always that way. The days ahead will have brokenness within them. Our role is to take each broken piece and make a mosaic that becomes the beautiful pattern of our life. It is through the broken pieces and the mosaic we create from it that we can find our personal perfection.
Moses’ breaking of the tablets before the laws even had time to be a part of the Israelite nation is a critical lesson to our people today. It reminds us that each person is broken, un-whole and imperfect in one way or another. I cannot think of a more valuable lesson in being Jewish today.
This year, Parshat Mishpatim is read on the first Shabbat of February, Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Non-typical learners and those living with physical challenges are the embodiment of the beauty of imperfections. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that the single most important thing to know about God is not God’s perfection, but God’s care for the world. Our role in partnering with God is to ensure that all people are a part of our shared future; and through the brokenness of tablets or glass we will make a beautiful mosaic of our shared Jewish future.
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey, President of the New York Board of Rabbis and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute.