By Alexandra Fleksher
In June 2020, Houzz, a home improvement online platform, reported a 58% increase in project leads from the previous year. Demand for kitchen and bath renovations increased by 40% in June 2020. What were we doing in June of 2020? We were in lockdown since March. We had spent a disproportionate amount of time preparing multiple meals and snacks in our kitchens and entertaining our children in our living rooms. We had finally had enough of the kitchen cabinets that were beyond repair and the stain of wood we’d always hated. We were sick of staring at the outdated tiles in our bathrooms day in and day out. We all wanted change and were doing whatever we could to improve our current reality. The trend even took on a name: “Pandemic Home Remodeling.”
Now there is nothing wrong with remodeling, and I’m looking forward to the day when I remodel my own kitchen. But I can speak for myself here. When I start thinking about “the ideal” for my kitchen, my good enough kitchen quickly deteriorates into definitely not good enough, and certainly not what I really want. The things that I do appreciate about what I have become shadowed by some ideal version that currently only resides in my dreams.
How often in our lives do we allow the ideal to ruin our reality? When we compare our present existence – or present relationship or present “insert any material thing” – to what we think is the perfect, right and correct version, we kill what we have. We allow negativity and dissatisfaction to seep into what is already good, or maybe good enough. The ideal of whatever it is creates a facade of expectations. When those expectations are not met, we are immobilized from appreciating, or even coping with, our current reality. Frustration ensues.
The tension between the ideal and real manifests itself in the spiritual realm of our lives too. Consider this sentiment, which may or may not be familiar: “I know I’m meant to be doing “x” mitzvah in a certain way (the ideal), but I just can’t deal with it, so I’m not going to bother at all. I’m just not at that level.” Or this: “Yom Kippur is coming and I can’t deal with teshuva and the emotional work it entails (the ideal). I’m not feeling any of it, so I’m not going to invest much energy into it. I’ll just do the bare minimum.”
In the material examples above, we had unmet expectations and dissatisfaction, creating frustration. However, in spiritual matters, we’re more likely to be so overwhelmed by the ideal that we are immobilized even to try to improve. We have unmet expectations (“I can’t do this mitzvah the way it’s meant to be done”), so we quit altogether. This is because we can’t handle any feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and failure. The truth is we should actually be striving to be dissatisfied with our efforts at growth, which can be a motivator to propel forward, instead of numbing ourselves to not feel anything!
Here’s how Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ZT”L in his book Ceremony and Celebration puts the challenge of the ideal vs. the real:
The distance between who we are and who we ought to be is, for most of us, vast. We fail. We fall. We give into temptation. We drift into bad habits. We say or do things in anger we later deeply regret. We disappoint those who had faith in us…Judaism sets the bar high, expecting great things of us in word and deed. So demanding are the Torah’s commandments that we cannot but fall short some, even much, of the time. Hashem asks us in some sense to be like Him: ‘Be holy for I, the L-rd your G-d, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Yet how can we be equal to such a challenge when we are, and know we are, human, all too human? How can we fail to disappoint Him? Better surely to accept what we are than aspire to be better than what we are. Yet this is a recipe for faint hearts and small spirits, and it is a route Judaism never took. Better to fail while striving greatly than not to strive at all (27,28).
The work is required of us. We must try. This is what it means to be a Jew. It is better to fail while trying than not to try at all. We cannot let the ideal sabotage our efforts. As the mishnah says in Pirkei Avos, “It’s not all on you to complete the work. And you’re not free to neglect it” (2:16).
What does this have to do with Yom Kippur? According to Rabbi Sacks, Yom Kippur “is Judaism’s answer to one of the most haunting of human questions: How is it possible to live the ethical life without an overwhelming sense of guilt, inadequacy, and failure?” (27). The rest of his essay elucidates a core concept that is so needed today in how we approach an understanding of Hashem. What’s needed is love, acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness – which is, in fact, the essential nature of Yom Kippur.
Hashem is the G-d of love and forgiveness, and He created us in love and forgiveness. We do not believe in original sin, so He’s not setting us up to fail. He is asking us to love and forgive others, which is an essential component of teshuva. He’s also asking us to accept our failures, learn and grow from them.
Human life is demanding. Judaism is demanding, and sometimes when we are emotionally fragile or not feeling resilient; it can be stressful. Hashem, therefore, needed to create a Yom Kippur, an institution that transmutes guilt into growth. Because there will be guilt, and guilt isn’t necessarily bad. But we must take that guilt, whether it is between ourselves and Hashem or ourselves and fellow man, and use it to reconcile and heal.
As Rabbi Sacks so eloquently states, “That institution is Yom Kippur, when in total honesty we fast and afflict ourselves, confess our failures and immerse ourselves, mystically and metaphorically, in the purifying waters of Hashem’s forgiving love.”
This is not only the message we need to hear today about how G-d views our sins, but it is also the truth about what Yom Kippur is and what it accomplishes.
The Talmud in Pesachim teaches that teshuva was one of the seven things created in the spiritual world before the physical world was created. Why? Rabbi Sacks explains:
So high does Judaism set the bar that it is inevitable that we should fall short time and time again. This means that forgiveness was written into the script from the beginning. Hashem, said the Sages, sought to create the world under the attribute of strict justice but He saw that it could not stand. What did He do? He added mercy to justice, compassion to retribution, forbearance to the strict rule of law. Hashem forgives. Judaism is a religion, the world’s first, of forgiveness (85).
So for all of us who struggle with the ideal vs. reality, remember that Hashem created a way to close the gap and that is Yom Kippur. Hashem created us knowing that we will fail. We cannot always live on the level of the ideal. He does ask us to acknowledge our failures, repair who and what we have harmed, and learn from our mistakes. He gave us Yom Kippur to transform guilt into growth. Because we needed it. Hashem does not lose faith in us, even though we may lose faith in ourselves. As Rabbi Sacks says, “More than Yom Kippur expresses our faith in Hashem, it is the expression of Hashem’s faith in us.”
This Yom Kippur, may we not be overwhelmed by the distance between who we are and who we ought to be. Instead, may we remember that Hashem forgives with mercy, compassion, and love – by design. May we always aspire to try, even if we fail, because it is better to fail while striving greatly than not to strive at all.
Mrs. Alex Fleksher is an educator, speaker, op-ed columnist for Mishpacha Magazine, co-host of Deep Meaningful Conversations, and creative director of the Faces of Orthodoxy social media account. She holds a Masters degree in secondary Jewish education from Azrieli Graduate School and an undergraduate degree in English/Communications from Stern College for Women. Alex is an active member of her local Cleveland community and a dynamic teacher with a passion for community activism. She’s a former chair of the Shabbos Project Cleveland, a founding board member of Chaviva High School for Girls and a co-founder of The Chizuk Retreat Cleveland.