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THE ROAD TO PERFECION

Thursday, 17 November, 2016 - 10:00 pm

Late one night, the phone rang in the librarian's home.

"What time does the library open?" a man asked.

"9:00 A.M." answered the librarian. "And why are you calling in the middle of the night to ask me that?"

"Not before 9:00 A.M.?" the caller asked disappointedly.

"No!" the librarian said. "Why would you want to get in any earlier?"

"Who said I wanted to get in?" the man sighed sadly. "I want to get out."

This week's Torah portion, Vayera, states that “Abraham and Sarah were old, coming on in days.” What does this mean? The Zohar offers a lovely interpretation. Abraham and Sarah lived each day to the fullest. Each day was wholesome, meaningful, and complete. 

However, this can't be fully accurate. For the first period of his life, Abraham was steeped in pagan worship. One Midrash says, Abraham was 48 years old when he recognized the Divine G-d. One cannot possibly say that Abraham was spiritually complete and wholesome each and every day of his life, when for decades he was steeped in his father’s and his society’s idolatry!  

The Rebbe introduced a powerful and enigmatic paradox in Jewish law.

Every Jew is obligated to fulfill all of the mitzvot of the Torah from the age of 12 for a girl, and 13 for a boy. Yet, the Torah does not obligate the parents to train their children to perform the Mitzvot before the age of Bat or Bar Mitzvah, so that they can be well rehearsed by the time they reach that moment of duty

We are thus faced with a paradox: There is no way that one can suddenly, on the day (s)he turns 12 or 13, observe all of the mitzvot perfectly, without previous practice and rehearsal. It would be like asking a youngster to suddenly join a pro league football team without a day of practice! From the Torah’s perspective, practice, trial, and error are all integral components of the Mitzvah itself.

In Israel, every 18-year-old is drafted into the army for three years. Before they become full fledged soldiers protecting the land and the people, they need six months of practice. They learn how to shoot, how to protect themselves and others, how to fight, how to war. Those that enter elite units need much more training. Do these months of practice count as part of their service in the army? Of course! When the country mobilizes someone into the army for three years, it takes the training time into account, because no one can become a soldier overnight.

This is the army's protocol.

Judaism has a similar philosophy. At 12 or 13, young Jews are “drafted” into the “adult army” of the Jewish people. Then, we must begin the training—and that takes time, trial, error and repetition, until we get it right. As the Talmud famously says: “The Torah was not given to angels,” but to humans, and humans need time to master a new lifestyle correctly. The necessary “training time” is part and parcel of the very Mitzvah. This idea explains the answer to our original question of how the Torah could describe all of Abraham's and Sarah's days as spiritually wholesome, despite worshipping idols for many years.

There is a very profound message here—and it is at the heart of Judaism. Abraham and Sarah were not born into a Torah environment. G-d did not expect them to turn their lives upside down in a single day! Humans need time and mental space to inquire, question, and slowly evolve in their consciousness. The road to truth is paved by trial and error, again and again, and yet again.

Just like any other scientific discovery or theory, Judaism is not appreciated with a snap of the fingers. Scientists spend months or years on research and speculation, until they discover the truth. Is all that time spent researching not considered part of scientific progress and discovery? Is it seen as a futile waste of time? Of course not! It is the only way to reach any type of truth.  

This is why the Torah tells us that Abraham and Sarah “came with all of their days.” From G-d’s perspective, all of their days were perfectly wholesome. They were always searching for and heading toward truth.

For Abraham and Sarah, the path to G-d passed through other paths, because without them they could never have discovered monotheism. So, even their “bad days” were “good days,” for all their days were part of “training,” even if they included error.  

The same holds true, at least to some degree, for all of us. Many of us discovered the beauty, truth, and majesty of Judaism later in life. We did not all have the privilege of growing up with it. Some of us may have traveled upon roads which had “forks,” and perhaps sometimes we took less wise ones, before finding Judaism. We may look back at times in our pasts and feel dejected, thinking we have wasted so many years in vain. We wish we would have discovered what we know now far earlier.

But when the Torah says that “Abraham and Sarah came with ALL of their days,” it is suggesting a deeper perspective. Life isn't something that should be edited. The only way some of us discover our souls is through the very processes we experienced. If each blemish that comes with growth, if every mistake and confusing moment, were done because we were really searching for meaning, then these are experiences and days we can “take along with us.” They are part of our relationship with the Divine, because the road to perfection is paved with imperfection.

An immigrant disembarked from the boat in New York. With no contacts or knowledge of English, he looked for a menial job at the local synagogue on the Lower East Side. He applied to be the shamash (sexton) of the Shul. Following a positive interview, he was given a contract to sign. Instead of signing his name, he placed an X on the dotted line. “No, that will not do,” said the employer, “we need you to sign the contract with your full name.”

“I don’t know how to write!” the immigrant blurted out.

“Well, in that case, I am sorry, but we cannot hire you. The job requires someone who can write in English.”

Dejected, the immigrant left to search for other opportunities. He was resourceful and desperate, and he eked out an entry-level job in a company. Over the years, with diligence, ingenuity and persistence, he climbed the ladder and ultimately became a very prosperous man. He became known in town for his enormous wealth, and was greatly respected by his peers, and above all, by the banks that readily issued him the loans he requested.

One day, a new bank manager was going over this fellow’s latest loan application, and noticed an X instead of the signature at the bottom. The manager phoned him and said, “My dear sir, you forgot to sign the application.”

“I signed it with an X,” the man replied.

She was bewildered. “Why do you sign with an X and not with your name, if I may ask?”

“Well,” he said sheepishly, “I never learned to write.”

The bank manager replied, “Wow! You became so wealthy without knowing the language. Imagine how much more successful you would have been if you had received an education and learned to sign your name.”

“Yes,” the gentleman answered. “If I knew how to sign my name, I would have become the shamash in the local synagogue….”

The sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, recalled:  "As a young child, I was once staring intently out of the window of our home. My mentor noticed my rapt look and summoned me to him. His words made a deep and lasting impression on me.

" 'Always remember, Yosef Yitzchak, that it is better to be on the outside looking in, than on the inside looking out....' "

As long as you and I are on a journey, we must cherish each day and hold it dear. We ought to caress it and appreciate that when imperfection leads to perfection, it is imperfectly perfect.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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