Weekly Torah Portion – Perfecting Imperfection
Parshat Shemini: Leviticus 9:1-11:47; I Samuel 20:18-42. (Shabbat Machar Chodesh)
My great-grandfather Avrum Nachman, of blessed memory, was accustomed to starting seder in a unique manner.
Picture a table set with spotlessly clean white linens and the fine china that only appears for seder: a table that is clearly ready for the perfect order of the Pesach meal.
After the order of the seder is sung and Kiddush chanted, my great-grandfather would immediately spill his wine — deliberately upsetting the perfect order of the evening from the outset. Before anyone could have made any kind of potential error, he had already set the tone that this would not and could not be a “perfect” evening. Now no one could be embarrassed by his own spills, literal or figurative, as the host had already made clear the imperfections were not only permissible, but also anticipated and welcome.
This lesson that my great-grandfather taught generations ago informs my thoughts on Parshat Shemini this year. After an intense week of preparation, Aharon and his sons are finally ready to serve God and our people in their appointed duties by offering the sin offering, the burnt offering and the offering of well-being. A duty that is performed perfectly, precisely as commanded by God. Almost immediately thereafter, God’s presence appears before all of our people (Leviticus 9:23) and fire comes forth from God and consumes the offerings on the altar.
Yet there is something curious that takes place immediately before God’s presence appears. After Aharon has made the commanded offerings and blessed the people, he and Moshe enter the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting, together. When they come out, they bless the people together, and it is only then that God’s presence appears. Until this point, Aharon has been the primary actor, fulfilling God’s will as conveyed to him through Moshe, including blessing the people. Why is there suddenly a need for Moshe to offer an additional blessing with him?
Quoting Sifra, a work of Midrash, Rashi offers us an interesting explanation for this. The reason Moshe and Aharon enter the Ohel Moed together and offer an additional blessing is that Aharon knew that something was wrong. He had offered all of the proscribed sacrifices as commanded, and yet God’s presence had not appeared. Despite the perfection of his actions, he was acutely aware of the perfection of the moment. He said to his brother, “You know that I have done as I have been commanded according to your words, and yet I am ashamed (at my perceived lack of worthiness); please do this with me (so that I may fulfill my obligation).” Then Moshe and Aharon entered together, offered prayer together and only then did God’s presence appear to all of us.
What then was Aharon’s imperfection? In that moment he was ritually pure and as well prepared as he could have been. Yet somehow he knew that was insufficient to that time and place. Only when he accepted that “perfect” service may not be what God needed or wanted from him in that moment; when he embraced his imperfection and sought his brother’s aid was his service perfected and fulfilled.
When we accept that it is within our own imperfections that we can sometimes offer the best parts of ourselves, those are the moments in which we can achieve greatness. May we all be blessed to recognize those imperfect moments for the gift that they can be.
Rabbi Jeremy Yoskowitz is an educator at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit in Farmington Hills.