DON’T ASK ME TO BE PERFECT
By the CyberRav—Rabbi Rafi Rank
Here is a sure formula for complete disappointment. Pick someone you know and expect perfection of that person. You know that you’re not going to get it, and yet so many people live as if they should. We expect parents to be prefect, doctors and therapists to be perfect, children to be perfect, and worst of all, we expect perfection of ourselves. All these expectations are road maps to one destination: disappointment. It’s a terrible platitude but let’s face it: no one is perfect.
That is the reason why I amalwasy thrown for a loop when God speaks to Avram and says, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in my ways and be perfect” (Genesis 17:1). Oh my God—talk about pressure! It’s bad enough when your kids expect you to be perfect, but when God comes along and tells you to be perfect, you must end up walking through life schlepping a sack of anxiety on your back.
You know what? I don’t believe He said it: God can’t be that hard on his first prophet. Perhaps the translation is wrong. In fact, what God tells Avram to be is tamim, a Hebrew word that could suggest perfection, but can have other meanings depending on the context. For example, the Etz Hayim translates tamim as “blameless.” My curiosity bubbled over the top. I did a quick on-line search of how other Bibles translate tamim, and surprisingly found little deviation from perfect or blameless, with some notable exceptions:
THE TRANSLATION THE BIBLE
Do what is right New Century Version
Be devout Holman Christian Standard Bible
Live to the hilt The Message
Frankly, none of these translations seemed to follow the context in which God is speaking to Avram. God is actually gearing up to tell Avram about a covenant that the two of them will enter into. And God also intends to establsih the sign of that covenant as milah or circumcision. Clearly, this section of the Torah is not for the feint-hearted. But I do suspect that the surgery and the term tamim are related. The juxtaposition of the two creates an irony that begs for interpretation. You see, circumcision entails the loss of flesh, but tamim is a word that, among other things, suggests “wholeness” or “completeness.” But if you’ve just gone through surgery and lost a part of you, and not an inconsequential part (I might add), how can that person be whole or complete? within that question is the answer. For God here directs us to understand that wholeness is not a physical condition, but rather a spiritual or emotional condition. God is asking Avram, and his children—and that means us all—to live completely and to live fully. And the achievement of the full life is often connected to what we are able to give up, in terms of our time, in terms of our resources, and in terms of our impulses.
I have sometimes heard parents argue against circumcision, describing it as an act of violence against a body that is otherwise perfect. If only this were true. It is no wonder that milah becomes the sign of the covenant for anyone who wants to live perfectly will never be able to live fully.
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