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The Imperfect You

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By Tal Lewis
MyLife Essay Contest 2016

“Any questions?”

The classroom was silent, for a while.

“My office hours,” the professor continued, “will be such and such a day, at such and such a time. Lecture is over.”

Every week, he announced them. And every week, no one showed up.

This was a pattern that repeated itself in the vast majority of my classes at this university. There were maybe one or two students who asked questions and came to office hours—perhaps wanting to curry the professor’s favor and earn a recommendation, or even being genuinely interested in the subject—while the silent majority just sat in class, silent.

It wasn’t even that people didn’t care about the class. Students took notes and made study groups. Some even went on to careers in that field. Still, most people did not ask or answer questions in lecture the entire semester.

Why did no one speak up?[1]

This essay will attempt to answer that question, by analyzing the fear of appearing imperfect, through the lens of the story of the Exodus. It will conclude that our frequent attempts to hide our faults only end in a downward spiral of suffering and humiliation. To emerge from this we must, as explained by Chassidus, accept our imperfections as part of the human condition, and work towards our true purpose, fulfilling G-d’s Torah and mitzvos.

 

The god who relieved himself
To understand these students’ perplexing behavior, let’s first examine the similarly confusing behavior of an infamous man in the Torah: Pharaoh.

When Moshe and Aaron came to Pharaoh demanding he let the Jewish people go, he was understandably reluctant. After all, they made up a large part of the Egyptian economy, as millions of free workers. And perhaps Pharaoh worried that if he gave them any freedom the Jews would rebel and overthrow him.[2]

But how many times could he refuse? G-d contaminated Egypt’s water, sent an infestation of frogs (that even inhabited the Egyptian’s intestines!), a plague of wild animals and snakes and scorpions that terrorized the Egyptians, etc, etc. And even in the face of some truly life-threatening plagues, time after time Pharaoh refused to let the Jews go.

It was only once every first born in Egypt was killed, in the tenth plague, that Pharaoh unconditionally released the Jews. And even then, he soon changed his mind and chased them into the desert! Why was Pharaoh so obsessed with keeping the Jews?

Perhaps the answer is as follows:

If Pharaoh let the Jews go, it would have meant admitting there was someone stronger than him. He would have had to admit his weakness and imperfection—and that was something Pharaoh could not do.

Pharaoh pretended he was a god. Not only did he demand honor and worship, but Pharaoh even pretended he did not have such physical, human needs as relieving himself. Every morning, he would sneak to the Nile where he would do his needs.[3] In fact, that is where Hashem told Moshe to surprise Pharaoh to warn him of the first plague, to send him a message: I know your secret, that you are only human. Admit to everyone who the real G-d is.[4]

But Pharaoh couldn’t bring himself to admit that he was only human, and that there was someone stronger than him. Letting the Jews go would have meant the end of an illusion he had spent a lifetime creating, namely that he was perfect. And before doing that, he was willing to be attacked by wild animals, bombarded by fiery hail, anything! Just so long as he didn’t admit his own imperfection.

 

Fooling a fool
So let’s get back to the university students. Why exactly were they so afraid to speak up in class, or ask their professor for help?

I believe it’s because they felt an incredible pressure to appear knowledgeable and impress their professor. And it wasn’t just about getting a recommendation or getting good grades—often, the professor would have rewarded students for coming and seeking help.

It was because asking a question means admitting you don’t know the answer. To finally show up at office hours means admitting that you need assistance and that your understanding of the material is not perfect.

It’s much easier to just figure things out on your own with a textbook and online tutorials. And as the semester wears on, the pressure grows more and more (at least in the student’s head): you didn’t come until now, a week before the exam? Why now?

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe once observed[5]: “The desire of every man is to appear a whole and complete person, not someone flawed. Even when we are talking about a person who is handicapped (Heaven forbid), [he endeavors to] wear a prosthetic limb of wood or metal. And all this, in order that when someone sees him, he should see him as a complete, unblemished person!”

But perhaps students (and we, in general) can take a lesson from Pharaoh: pretending you are perfect only makes you look more and more stupid. In fact, that is one of the reasons the Torah gives for Hashem orchestrating Pharaoh’s intransigence: in order to make a mockery of Pharaoh’s “greatness,” and show who is truly great, Hashem.[6]

The only one you fool by pretending to be perfect is yourself (in that you think other people are fooled). And, as the second Lubavitcher Rebbe would say, what’s the big deal in fooling a fool?

 

Admitting imperfection
Now we have defined the issue—the fear of appearing imperfect—we must understand how to overcome this fear. In various Chassidic sources, two steps are delineated: 1) realize and accept that you are a human being and like all human beings you have faults, and 2) connect to the Almighty on His terms, through the fulfillment of His commandments.

Let’s first explain step one. Basically, one must accept that he is human, not a god, and as such has faults. As King Solomon writes[7], “For there is no man on earth who is so completely righteous that he does not sin.”[8]

Therefore, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe notes[9], “Since every person desires to appear complete, a person first has to be proud that he is human [i.e. that he has faults]. And if he is embarrassed of his humanity, that itself is his biggest imperfection.”

This is indeed one of the main themes of Tanya, the seminal work of Chabad-Chassidus. One of its names is Sefer shel Benonim, the Book of the Middle-Man, because it is addressed to the middle-men and those who strive to become them, not the rare perfectly righteous.[10]

With this, the Alter Rebbe defines a revolutionary new goal in divine service. Do not strive to be perfect, with the inevitable guilt and even depression that comes from never fully achieving your goal; instead, strive to be the perfectly fulfilled you. For perhaps Hashem created you to struggle with your imperfect self all your life.[11]

A story is told of one of the Alter Rebbe’s contemporaries, Reb Zusha of Anipoli. “When I pass away and come before the Heavenly court, they might ask me, ‘Why are you not like Avraham, our father?’ To this I will answer, ‘Because I was not Avraham.’

“If they ask me, ‘Why did you not reach the exalted level of Moshe our teacher?’ I will respond, ‘Because I was not Moshe.’

“But there is one question I fear. If they ask me ‘Zusia, why were you not more like Zusia?’ To this, I will have no reply.”

That is to say, each person must focus on fulfilling his own potential rather than someone else’s. True perfection, according to Chassidus, is not an objective benchmark but rather something extremely personal. Each person must become the best they can.

This is the first step of divine service—realizing your true nature.[12] Once someone admits their imperfection and humanity, they can progress to the real content and work of divine service.[13]

 

Thanks a lot, G-d
Once someone has admitted he is imperfect, however, he might be at a loss. Yes, it is true that he is human. He is not perfectly smart, or kind, or athletic… But then what is he? What does he have to be proud of?

To this, Chassidus offers a second step: take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Was the whole reason man was created to become perfect through personal effort? Obviously not.[14] Do our efforts to improve ourselves truly measure up to G-d, the “Perfection of everything?”[15] Clearly not.

As we say in the Shabbat prayers[16], “Even if our mouths were full of song like the sea, and our tongues sang like the roar of its waves…  and our feet were as quick as deer, it would not be enough to praise You, Hashem.” For Hashem is infinite, and we are only human and finite.

Our goal on this earth, according to Chassidus, is not necessarily to become perfect, on our terms. Instead, our job is to use the tools that G-d gave us, in the way He intended—to perform his commandments in this physical world. (This is in contrast to the goal of the Musar movement, perfection of self through character refinement, tikun hamidos.)[17]

With this idea, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains[18]  a curious omission of the Torah. The first time Avraham is mentioned in the Torah is when G-d commands him to leave his father’s house and go to the Promised Land.[19]

At this point, Avraham is already 75! The Torah skipped what would seem to be some very important events in his life. At three, he recognized Hashem; he then destroyed all his father’s idols; and he was later thrown into a burning furnace for spreading monotheism. Why does the Torah fail to mention all these events that seemingly demonstrate Avraham’s great righteousness?

The Rebbe explains that this is because true greatness does not stem from one’s own abilities. Even Avraham, the founder of Judaism, had little on his own. Where does the Torah begin his life? With G-d’s first command to him, “Leave… and go the Promised Land,” because that is when he began to have a true relationship with the Divine.

We may not be godly, or perfect—but we do not have to be. Our job is to serve G-d on His terms, by fulfilling His Torah and mitzvos. And in this way, we each fulfill our soul’s mission.

 

Full circle
“Any questions?” I ask my class.

Predictably, there is silence.

Three years after graduating university, I am once again back in a classroom, but this time at the front, teaching. I’m no longer the one asking the questions, but the one answering them, while trying to create a positive and supportive atmosphere for students to share their questions.

As a teacher, I see now clearly how pretending to be perfect, as did Pharaoh, just leads to anguish and embarrassment. And now I know the tools to deal with this insecurity: admit your imperfection and realize that it’s not about trying to perfect, but about doing G-d’s Torah and mitzvos.

As a teacher, I also have to struggle with this fear, in a new way. Often, a student asks a question that I don’t know the answer to. And when this happens, I can make up an answer or struggle to figure it out, probably looking foolish in the process. Or I can admit: “I don’t know.”

As a teacher, all the time I have to come to terms with my imperfection.

I don’t know, and that is OK.

 

Footnotes
[1] This phenomenon has been documented. Many suggest that lack of classroom participation is due to low confidence, as explained in the present essay. (See Rocca 2010, pp 191-193 for a summary of the literature, available online at http://www.csus.edu/indiv/s/stonerm/rocca-litrevengagingstudents.pdf)

[2] See Shemos 1:9-10, Rashi.

[3] Rashi to Shemos, 7:15

[4] See Torah Or, 57a-b, where the Alter Rebbe explains that this was in general the purpose of the ten plagues, to bring Pharaoh and Egypt to the recognition that G-d is the only true power.

[5] Toras Menachem 5742, Purim subsection 11

[6] Shemos, 10:2; Likutei Sichos Vol. 6, pp 60-62

[7] Koheles, 7:20

[8] This is true in general. Tanya (ch. 10) explains that there do in fact exist perfectly righteous individuals who never sin and do not even desire to. The Alter Rebbe, however, explains that this is not achievable through man’s effort, but rather requires unsolicited Divine assistance (ch. 14). As such, this perfection of personality is out of reach for the vast majority of people. In truth, this is explained even in the Talmud—see Shabbos 55b, first Tosofos of page.

Actually, Chassidus explains that even the divine service of the few perfectly righteous is in a subtle way lacking, for they serve an infinite G-d. See Hachaltzu 5657, subsection 13.

[9] Toras Menachem, ibid.

[10] Tanya, beginning of ch. 14

[11] Ibid., ch. 27

[12] This is the reason Tanya begins with a discussion of identity. See also Principles of Education and Guidance ch. 3-4, by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe.

[13] As explained in the continuation of Tanya, ch. 15 and on.

[14] See Tanya, ch. 36

[15]Pasach Eliyahu, prayers Shabbos-eve (from Tikunei Zohar, Introduction 2).

[16] Nishmat Kol Chai

[17] It could be argued that, practically, there is little difference between Musar and Chassidus in this respect. For even according to Chassidus, G-d commands us to improve ourselves and become more refined human beings (see fn. 50 of Likutei Sichos quoted below), and even according to Musar the root reason to work on one’s character is because G-d said to do so. There is, however, a significant difference: is personal refinement felt to be an end in and of itself? If it is, then it will be given much more emphasis vis-à-vis simple performance of mitzvos. This seems to be the approach of Musar.

[18] In Likutei Sichos Vol. 25, pp 47-50.

[19] Bereishis, 12:1

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