Battling Perfection at the Start of the Jewish Year

October 15, 2019Rabbi Sharon G. Forman

My mother-in-law bounced my children, each in their own time, endlessly on her lap to the jaunty pulse of a cautionary German nursery rhyme, “Hoppe, Hoppe, Reiter” (“Hop, Hop, Rider”), that warns of the dangers of tumbling from a horse and the need to avoid a disgraceful descent that includes a muddy ditch, a broken leg, and, ultimately, a grisly demise by murderous ravens. This bouncing, bungee-jumping game was a favorite for all three of our children. 

“Do Hoppe,” my tiny children begged me when Grandma was not around. They do not understand that my parents never learned kniereitvers, those bouncing knee games best shared by grandparents and toddlers. I speak English and studied Latin and French in high school. Hebrew is the language of my prayers. Love and sarcasm are sometimes conveyed in Yiddish in my family. German is still foreign to me – the soundtrack of black-and-white World War II footage and the text to Bach cantatas.

“Do you know what that rhyme means?” I quizzed my husband, whose grasp of German is limited to words such as “please,” “thank you,” and “plum cake.” We Googled to find the translation to Grandma’s rhyme and were not surprised. Hoppe may be all fun and games for a bouncing toddler, but its meaning is classic fairy tale horror. In this little ditty, the rider must hold on to the reins for dear life or fall shrieking into a filthy abyss.

My children are teenagers now, but I still think about Hoppe and its difficult message and warning: In the grim world of this children’s rhyme, failure is not an option. Fall down just once into the mud, and pain and death may follow. Perfection is the only acceptable outcome. 

In our society, in which plastic surgery and cold sculpting can make our bodies look smooth and youthful, the push to look (and be) perfect is endless. Social media flash our friends’ brightly colored blissful lives at us constantly – sun-kissed joy, professional success, picture-perfect children, and relationship harmony – a seeming paradise compared to the failures and disappointments in the lives of our own mundane, sepia-toned families.

How many of our children refuse to try a new sport because they’ve never played it and believe they are too old to catch up to their peers? How many quit learning to play musical instruments because they don’t yet play well, and they won’t do something unless they can do it perfectly? What about students who avoid classes in certain subjects, unwilling to risk ruining their grade point averages and tarnishing their academic success?

For both myself and my children, I work to counter the ever-present message from their Hoppe days of long ago. Battling the prospect of falling into metaphorical mud only to face more physical and emotional challenges is not easy. Nonetheless, disappointing grades, a less than stellar athletic showing, frustrations with a friend, an academic or social failure – all these things can be overcome. They are not insurmountable.

The High HolidayHigh Holidaysיָמִים נוֹרָאִיםRosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur season reminds us of our natural state of human imperfection. Each year, no matter how well-intentioned we are, we fall short in our promises to do better and be better. While we admit we have missed the mark and have acted poorly, nonetheless, we try again.

The shofar call reminds us to look within ourselves to find a way to be better at who we are and how we act. Not perfect, but better. When we fall down, we do not have to tumble into a soggy, muddy ditch and have our eyes pecked out. We can fall and rise, fall and rise, echoing the sound of the shofar. 

We are all riders, racing to a place we hope will be filled with love and success. Sharp stones, prickly hedges, and fear may surround us, but reassured by our tradition, which honors our attempts to overcome failure, we can rise from our fall into the embrace of family, loved ones, and our own sense of purpose and dignity.

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