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Torah Reflections

Yitro: The Perfection of Imperfection

This week’s Torah portion (Yitro/Jethro), cover a lot of ground, including Moses’ ascent to Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. I’m going to focus instead on a single seemingly unimportant verse:

When you make for Me an altar of stones, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for by wielding your cutting tool (kherev) upon them, you will desecrate it. (Exodus 20:22)

The Hebrew word “kherev” also means “sword”. The Mishnah explains that the source of the sword’s desecrating power is its connection with warfare, death and destruction. That’s why hewn stones are prohibited.

Having spent generations in Egypt, the Israelites were no strangers to the grand style of that land’s sacred architecture. They might have been inclined to construct their sacred sites in a similar manner. But they are instructed otherwise. The focal point of ancient Israelite worship was to be an altar made from earth and imperfect unhewn stones. Perfection is reserved for the Divine.

As I was thinking about Yitro and the unhewn stones, I remembered the stone walls on the  Insight Meditation Society‘s property in Barre, MA. Those walls are all that remains of the small farms that long ago dotted the area. Although the houses and barns and other structures have largely disappeared, the walls remain standing. If you look carefully at them you notice that they were built from unhewn, imperfect stones that had been fitted together without mortar.

It would seem that imperfection has a structural integrity that perfection cannot match.

Yitro and imperfection

I don’t know about you, but I tend to forget that. I spent much of my life trying to perfect myself, inside and out. To give you an idea of how obsessive I was about this, let’s take a look at my preschool coloring habits. I noticed right away that the color of the crayon was much richer than what appeared on the paper. So I kept coloring–inside the lines, of course–until the layer of wax was so thick that it precisely matched the color of the crayon itself. That was just the beginning.

I now consider myself a recovering perfectionist. A number of years ago, I acquired a little sign that reads, “practice imperfection”, and I keep it on my desk as a constant reminder. I’ve been practicing imperfection ever since then, and I’ve learned a few things along the way. I’ve learned that when I worry about being perfect, I’m can’t be truly creative. I’ve discovered that I lose the ability to be truly present, because I’m constantly observing and judging myself. And I’ve seen time after time that the quest for perfection creates more fragility than strength.

Disorder on my desk or in my home still makes me uneasy, and I am still slightly horrified when I discover a typo or grammatical error in these commentaries. But if I worried overmuch about those things, I would never have the time to think and write, and even if I did, I would never think these commentaries were good enough to share with you.

I’ve learned that when I strive for perfection I am really striving for appearances but when I practice imperfection I achieve authenticity. I’ve learned to accept myself as an unhewn stones where the sacred in nevertheless made manifest, somehow perfect in my very imperfection.

May you be blessed…

May you be blessed to find the beauty in your own rough edges, and your uniqueness. May you find just the right unhewn stones to build up the altar that you are. And may what you build endure.

Ameyn, keyn yehi ratzon. Amen, may it be so.

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