March 23, 2000
Shabbat Parah (Numbers 19:1-22)
Consider the lyrics of Cheryl Wheeler's song "Unworthy":
"I'm unworthy -- and no matter what I'm doing I should certainly be doing something else.
And it's selfish, to be thinking I'm unworthy. All this me, me, me, me, self, self, self, self, self.
I should learn how to meditate and sew and bake and dance and paint and sail and make gazpacho.
I should let someone teach me to run Windows and learn French that I can read and write and speak.
I should get life in prison for how I treated my parents from third grade until last week.
And I should spend more time playing with my dog and much less money on this needless junk I buy.
I should send correspondence back to everyone who's written, phoned or faxed since junior high.
I should sit with a therapist until I understand the way I felt back in my mom.
I should quit smoking, drinking, eating, thinking, sleeping, watching TV, and work harder at getting along.
I should know CPR and deep massage and Braille and sign language and how to change my oil.
I should go where the situation's desperate and build and plant and trudge and tote and toil.
Sometimes it's hard to feel worthy. Most of us expect an awful lot from ourselves and we expect a lot from our children. They're pushed, coached, tutored and tested to the point that they feel loved for their performance, not their essence. We expect a lot of our parents and spouses, who, after all, do the best they can, just like we do. Yet we have such a hard time forgiving them their human frailties. Sometimes we have a hard time forgiving ourselves for being human, too.
Stand in line at the supermarket and look at the magazine covers. Then look at the people looking at the magazine covers; comparing themselves, their bodies, their lives, to those described in the glossy pages. Imagine what middle-aged men are thinking when they read about "dot com" kids -- young men and women in their 20's worth tens of millions.
L.A. ranks number one in cosmetic surgery and has the neat distinction of having the highest number of parents springing for breast implants as high school graduation presents so that their daughters can go off to college with "enhanced self-esteem." We live in a city that manufactures and upholds superhuman images of perfection, raising the standard of what it means to be worthy -- to its most ridiculous.
The Torah knew better; all of its heroes are imperfect. Abraham is a lousy father and husband but he's called "the friend of God." Jacob plays favorites with his sons. Joseph is arrogant. Moses loses his temper. Virtually every family in the Torah is dysfunctional. When God creates the world it's called "good," not perfect, just "good." For God, good is good enough. God does not expect us to be perfect.
The rabbis make it clear through the special name and Torah reading assigned to this Shabbat. This Shabbat is called Shabbat Parah, the Sabbath of the Red Heifer. On it, we read one of the weirdest stories in the entire Torah. It has to do with when a person feels contaminated by something he has done wrong and is therefore unworthy of coming into God's presence. That person can cleanse and purify himself by undergoing the ritual of the Red Heifer. A cow with completely red skin, without a single discolored hair or blemish is sacrificed and its ashes made into a paste that is applied to the person to purify him.
What's this bizarre ritual really about? Here's what one rabbi thinks. "The Red Heifer represents perfection. It is slaughtered to make the point that perfection has no place in this world. Perfect creatures belong in heaven, not on earth."
Despite what we might surmise standing in line at the supermarket, L.A. and the rest of the world is for those of us with imperfections. God does not expect us to be God. God does not expect us to be perfect human beings. God only expects us to be humane.
The writer Anne Lamott put it this way: "I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up, I found that God handed you these rusty, bent, old tools -- friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty -- and said, 'Do the best you can with these, they will have to do.'"
To Anne Lamott, to Cheryl Wheeler, to all of us who feel unworthy, our ancestors speak across a thousand generations this Shabbat Parah; slaughtering perfection and grinding it to a pulp. Reminding us that friendship, prayer, conscience and honesty might not be perfect, but they're good, and good is good enough.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of "The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things," published by Behrman House, Inc.