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Rabbi Kalmar's Message - Parshat VayikraMarch 19/20, 2021

"The Pursuit of Perfection?"

Gonzaga University enters the NCAA Division one men’s basketball tournament this weekend with a perfect record of 26-0 and with all the pressure and expectation which comes with it.  But they do not own the longest perfect win streak in Men’s NCAA basketball.  That distinction belongs to non-other than my alma mater – the Yeshiva University Maccabees or Macs.  As reported by the Jerusalem Post, the New York Daily News and now CNN – Yeshiva University owns the longest winning streak in the NCAA at 36 consecutive wins dating back to the beginning of last season when they lost their first game .  Last year they were cruising into the sweet 16 of Division III March Madness when COVID-19 shut them down.   Now they own a tie for the second longest win streak in NCAA Division III history.   This from Yeshiva University? Not exactly known as a basketball powerhouse, the papers have picked up the underdog story of students who spend half a day learning Torah and half the day at college and yet are succeeding at such a level.  The LA Times wrote an article yesterday entitled “Can [Yeshiva University’s] Ryan Turell become the first Orthodox Jewish NBA Player?”    I have to say – I am proud.

This week’s Parsha begins with the pasuk -

 וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו

And the Lord called unto Moshe and spoke to him…

The phrase Vayikra el Moshe, that God called to Moshe seems to be left hanging.  God called to Moshe but didn’t say anything.   And then He spoke to him about something else.  What was the first calling for?    Rav Moshe Shternbuch, in his Taam VeDaat, says that when Hashem called Moshe, Moshe was enveloped with a wave of religiosity and spirit.    He felt a surge of closeness to God and was moved to a greatness of spirit.  He felt the call.  God called to him – not with any specific message, but with a love and closeness that motivated him to great things. 

               There are moments when each of us feel that call to greatness and to service to God.  Sometimes we feel that call when we are exposed to something in nature, when we hear a moving tune, during prayer, or maybe even when hearing a beautiful sermon (???) or even watching your alma mater enjoy a perfect basketball season.

               But there is an anomaly in that word call in the Torah.  The last letter of Vayikra, the alef, is written small in the Torah.  Many commentators have given many reasons for the little alef, with many of them focusing on the humility of Moshe Rabbeinu.  But I would like to suggest that the little alef is telling us something about the call.  It is telling us that it is ok if everything is not perfect.  Not everything needs to be uniform and exact and without blemish.  When God calls us to serve – when we feel the calling – we often feel that everything needs to be done just so.  Everything needs to be exact, beautiful, stylish, eloquent, ingenious, and unique: in short – perfect.    The problem with this is that of course life is not perfect.  Everything does not go just so – there are always hiccups and challenges.  And it is important that we take to heart the Italian proverb quoted by Voltaire, “Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good”.    The little, abnormally sized alef is telling us this lesson.  Hashem wants us to hear the call.  He wants us to serve Him with love and zeal and excitement and passion.  But he doesn’t expect us to be perfect.  And we shouldn’t expect that of ourselves.

Pesach is upon us and if there ever was a time when we seem to expect perfection it is Pesach.  Get rid of all chometz, clean your houses till they sparkle, design the most amazing and creative Pesach seder while making the best Pesach food for 8 days of culinary perfection.  The problem is that we set ourselves up by expecting everything to be amazing so that when it isn’t – we stress out and blow up.  Hashem wants our effort, not our perfection.  If we expect perfection in our holiday then we tend to fail at enjoying and enhancing the good of the holiday.

               The pandemic continues – and there are many things that we don’t like.  Some of us don’t like the idea having masks anymore at all, some of us don’t like the idea that we might go somewhere in public because of the chance we might get Covid.  But just because we can’t have it the way we like it to be doesn’t mean that we should not do what we can.  Missing out on things because we are angry or afraid is just hurting ourselves.  Nothing is perfect – there is always risk involved in going out our door and truth be told – most accidents happen at home, so there is always risk – we have to decide what is reasonable risk – protecting ourselves from a very small risk at the expense of living life is not good either.

               It is like they are saying with the vaccines – some of the vaccines may be more effective than others – but the value of getting one at all far outweighs the danger and risk of not getting one and therefore people should be getting them no matter what.

               And in life – we need to be doing what we can to good in our lives, without letting perfection get in the way.

               So yes, Yeshiva University’s unbeaten streak and perfect basketball season has been fun to follow and made me feel proud.  But this too will come to an end.  Perfection as a goal is a fool’s errand.  We would be much better served to seek out the good. At this time of year, when Spring is in the air and the revelations and salvation of the Pesach season inspire us to feel God’s presence, to revel in His goodness and to hear the call of the Lord, let’s remind ourselves not to aspire to perfection.   For getting inspired by God’s call and committing ourselves to work hard to do the most good, that would truly be perfect. 

Sat, June 10 2023 21 Sivan 5783