Hi, my name's Marci, and I'm a recovering perfectionist. I say this with a smile, but it is very much true. As a child, I had many early elementary school successes and very little early failure. By the time I entered adolescence, I was completely unprepared to cope with what many would consider normal life experiences. I didn't get the part I wanted in a school play, a boyfriend broke up with me, and I got some Bs on my report card.
Suddenly I didn't know who I was.
My whole self-image as a perfect, exemplary student and daughter just evaporated.
I spiraled into depression, which, thankfully, my parents recognized quickly and sent me to a caring therapist. Over the next few years of junior high and high school, I learned that I didn't have to define myself by my successes or by my failures. Rather, I am the totality of all of my experiences and characteristics. This lesson was hard-learned,
and even to this day, I continue to wrestle with the critical internal voices that tell me I have to be perfect.
One of the most comforting stories in our tradition, when it comes to battling perfectionism, is the story of the Golden Calf. It is not the calf itself nor the act of creating the idol that I'm referring to, rather, it is Moses's response to the calf. After he had been up on the top of Mount Sinai, and had received the tablets of the Ten Commandments, he began to descend in order to share these wonderful divine gifts with the Israelite people. But, then:
As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. (Exodus 32:19)
It's hard to decide who has more chutzpah in this story-the Israelites for building the Golden Calf, or Moses for shattering tablets of the covenant inscribed by God. No matter what, Moses still needs a set of tablets, so he hikes back up the mountain to make some new ones (Exodus 34:4).
One might ask, what did Moses do with the broken set of tablets? Did he just leave them there? Throw them out? Recycle them into something else? In fact, the Talmud teaches us that "the second set of the tablets and the broken pieces of the first tablets both rest in the Ark" (Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 8b). Thus, the Israelites were to carry around both the broken set and the "perfect" set at all times.
The lesson from this is incredible: our brokenness is just as holy as our perfection. Our flaws and moments of weakness can be just as sacred. I remember taking a big, deep breath the first time I learned this Talmud text, as it seemed to take an enormous amount of pressure off of me. The incessant messages from our society that we must always be perfect were countered by these ancient words of wisdom from our Sages.
In studying the lessons from the two sets of tablets, we are all encouraged to be role models for successful failures (not an oxymoron), and to show that making mistakes is normal. Our greatest prophet, Moses, shattered the tablets in a moment of impassioned rage; there is little we can do that reaches that level of sin and sacrilege. And yet, even after this unimaginable sin, Moses still continues to be God's messenger and the designated leader of the Israelites. Moses is forgiven for his imperfection, as is evidenced in the familiar words: "The Eternal! The Eternal! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin" (Exodus 34:6‒7).
We must teach the next generation that it is okay to make mistakes and model how to take responsibility for them. But we also must give ourselves permission to do the same.
Each time I meet with a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah student, in preparation for his or her big day, I tell each one the same thing: I promise you that I will make a mistake. This is especially therapeutic for me, let me tell you, but it also releases so much of the student's anxiety. I also make sure to say it in front of the parents, so that the whole family knows that perfection is not the goal. Each one of us on the bimah must always do our very best, but we need never be perfect. Mistakes happen, and it is okay.
I'm not saying it's easy to admit when you've messed up. I'm not saying that it doesn't hurt when you are reprimanded, downsized, embarrassed, or publicly corrected in some way. It does hurt, but it does not have to destroy you.
Recognizing the fact that we all make mistakes does not mean we can shrug everything off and not take responsibility for our errors. But we also can allow ourselves the opportunity to rebuild after we err. We can be resilient, we can be courageous, and we can appreciate the wandering that we do betweens errors and successes.
As American psychiatrist, George E. Vaillant writes in his work, Adaptation to Life, "It's all too common for caterpillars to become butterflies and then maintain that in their youth they had been little butterflies" (New Haven, CT: Harvard University Press, 1988, p. 197). We tend to be so quick to forget the ugliness, the awkwardness, the ignorance, and the natural part of learning that comes with experience. Remember the fact that you were once a small caterpillar making mistakes and learning from them. Perhaps there are times when you still feel like a caterpillar. Keep this in mind and maybe it will help the butterfly inside you-and your children-
soar that much higher.
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as the rabbi at Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. She also writes the "Reform, Really" column, which is featured bimonthly on the New York Jewish Week Web site.
Each time I review this parashah, I become more interested in the Chapter 34:14−26 version of what we call the Ten Commandments. They are so starkly different from the ones we typically associate with the "Big Ten."
This set is filled with ritual laws for the observance of festivals, rules on sacrifice, and a shorthand version of the biblical dietary laws. What is this? I see it as a response to the Golden Calf and God's reconsideration of what is to be required for Israel to be Israel.
In this regard, I find the insights of Jaroslav Pelikan instructive. His teaching on traditional religion's encounter with modernity provides an interesting take. Pelikan writes:
The universal truths and values . . . of . . . the Enlightenment defied the idolatry of tradition and did not depend on any of the specific traditions . . . . It was not necessary to cultivate and transmit those traditions once the universal values had been achieved; they were . . . the ladder which one climbed to reach the window, but which one no longer needed once the window of universal truth was open (The Vindication of Tradition [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984], p. 56).
I cannot help but think that this idea applies to these commandments of Ki Tisa. The ethical mandates of the Big Ten require a ritual structure. Universal ideas and ideals need mooring, culture, modes of transmission, and teaching. Values need to be embedded in something that both carries and celebrates them. This is the task of Jewish ritual. Goodness cannot exist in a vacuum or as a disembodied universal ideal. Religion and religious community provides a thick context for the good to take root.
Our challenge is to have our ritual work for us so that our celebrations lead us to the great values and ideas that ennoble us and make us most fully human. This is what Judaism demands.
Moses comes off the mountain the first time seeing the Golden Calf and realizes that a more structured approach to religious life is needed. He reascends the mountain and returns with values that are rooted in a way of life, a way of living and eating, and even a calendar to guide the year.
Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel is the senior rabbi at Temple Micah in Washington, D.C.
Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 632–662; Revised Edition, pp. 581–606;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 495–520