Nobody’s Perfect: The Challenge of Seeing the Sacred around Us

October 23, 2015Rabbi Yair Robinson

The Ba’al Shem Tov said: There are two ways to serve God. One is to separate yourself from people and from the world’s affairs, and to devote yourself wholly to a study of religious books. This is the safe way. The other way is to mingle with people, to engage in the affairs of the world, and at the same time, to try to be an example of godliness. This way has its dangers, but it is far the more worthy.

During the summer, I accepted an invitation to preach about “the human family” at an Episcopal church this coming Sunday. As I prepare, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the Ba’al Shem Tov’s statement and what it might mean for us – the human family – today.

It’s the kind of idea that is supposed to conjure images of unity, but with the violence unfolding across our own nation, in Israel, and across the Middle East, I find that the idea gives me pause.

We seem to be caught between the desire for feel-good “Kumbaya moments” and an eagerness to judge because we live a safe distance from the places where hurt is happening. We are quick to reach for cat memes or to Monday-morning quarterback other people’s choices, be they nations (“Why can’t Israel just make peace with the Palestinians?”) or individuals (“Hey, what’s her problem?”)

The truth is that people and life are complicated. Those we seek to help are never picture-perfect, to say nothing of our own flaws. There’s a good reason that when debating which verse of Torah best summed up God’s word, the rabbis did not settle on “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Instead, they chose “And God created humanity in God’s own image.”

That is to say, each of us acts in ways that are unloving and unlovable; as a result, our relationships – whether longstanding friendships or brief encounters in the checkout line – can be fraught, especially if we expect each other to live up to some unrealistic ideal.

If we can recognize that we are not the protagonist in everyone else’s  script – that there is holiness in others’ lives – then perhaps we can elevate the day-to-day things that happen around us. The waitress who gets your order wrong is off her game, but not to spite you; her son is home sick. That elderly, pokey driver in front of you did not set out to make you late; he’s afraid of losing his independence and doesn’t know how to ask for help.

Do these circumstances make them saints? No, of course not. But neither do they give us permission to give up on or objectify the people around us, reducing them solely to the task we need or want them to do for us.

We can look objectively all we want at the way things ought to be, giving failing grades to all who don’t live up to our ideal. Or we can recognize that being created in God’s image doesn’t mean we’re perfect; it means we are capable of holiness.

I’m still struggling with what I’ll share with worshipers in church on Sunday, wondering precisely what words of inspiration will speak to them – and to me. Even so, I know the struggle will be worthwhile if it enables me to see the holiness in them and them to see the same in me. Indeed, may we – all of us – strive to see the holiness in each other.

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