Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ki Tissa - The Perils of Perfectionism

Upon witnessing Israel’s act of idolatry in fashioning the Golden Calf, Moses shatters the tablets he received from God. It was as if he took a piece of God and flung it to the ground. Imagine if you can the drama and power of this response.

Why did this happen? We can only speculate that the most intense of inner reactions led to this overpowering act of invalidation and reversal. Anger, disappointment, betrayal, utter impotence, sheer helplessness all accounted for this most extreme of form of behavior.

The tablets lay strewn about in tiny fragments. They were the letters and words of God; what was to be done with them?

They could have been ground up and scattered upon the people as some act of expiation, similar to the fate of the Golden Calf!

Or as is the custom today in dealing with discarded fragments of sacred writings, burial would reflect a proper way of removing the evidence of such a shameful and tragic experience committed by Israel!

We are told that the fragments were gathered up and placed alongside the newly crafted tablets that rested in the ark in the Holy of Holies. These tainted tablets would forever remind Israel and God of this enormous sin of apostasy. Why not discard them and start fresh with the new tablets?

Rather than a reminder of failure and sin, these broken tablets were designed to help Israel and God be mindful of the inherent imperfection of the human heart, its vulnerability and susceptibility to false expectations of utter security that flow out of fear and find their external concretization in an image, in the fashioning of an idol onto which futile hopes are projected!

Yet, these shattered pieces of life, of human error, of striving that somehow sputtered out of steam, deserve a rightful place in the context of a holy spsace, within the Ark of the Covenant itself. Perhaps it is only the broken heart that understands the precious holiness of life, that can touch some aspect of the divine in the unfolding of all things. Perfection seems to suggest hubris; the need to be perfect represents the absence of one's ability to embrace humility and submit to the overarching grandeur of the universe and its Creator.

Each tablet, the shattered one and the intact one, brings to mind the wonderful typology of Rabbi Soloveitchik 's analysis of the nature of the human being based on the two accounts of human creation in the book of Genesis.( The Man of Faith-Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) The Rav talks about two parts of the human personality; one, the Adam I dimension “created “in the first chapter of the Bible which speaks to our innate capacity to strive for achievement and success, majestic man who is called upon to have dominion over the world. This type is followed by the emergence of Adam II, created out of dust, asleep, taken from another's rib, whose coming to life is a product of a passive, 'defeated' posture, and whose purpose unfolds and takes hold by way of attachment to relationship and the experience of ultimate dependency. This is the human personality who encounters God out of imperfection, humility and a sense of utter need. All of us are endowed with both capacities, and the balance of the two reflects a wholesome spiritual personality who can live happily and meaningfully. Our lives become holy arks when we can recognize that thse two dimensions are inseparable, and are constantly in an inner state of seeking some equilibrium and balance.

Shattered fragments are symbolic of the human’s inescapable imperfection and need for faith in a reality that is in a constant state of flux, in a reality that transcends the ostensible and pulsates with the holy beyond the immediacy of human existence and within the very fabric of our recognizable world.

Shabbat Shalom

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