Is perfection too high a standard?

By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Parashat Naso

It is hard to believe that this week our younger child, our daughter Elana, will be graduating from high school. From her days in preschool to her 13 years and 2340 days of schooling from K to 12, it still feels like it has flown by. In reflecting on this whirlwind I went and dug up a 2009 Washington Post article I recalled reading which highlighted two students from among 20 local school systems who never missed a day of those 2340. Not one single day! The article compares the students to baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken and his consecutive game streak of 2,632 games. As the article says about one of the students, “Not once in 13 years was [she] marked absent: not for a cold, a family vacation, a college visit or a senior skip day. She once went on a freshman trip to Shanghai with the school marching band and boarded the plane with her clarinet only after securing written assurance from the principal that the trip would not count as an absence.”

At first glance, this seems like a pretty cool accomplishment. How can we not be impressed by someone’s dedication on that level? And yet, there is another side of this equation for us to think about. The article’s author, Daniel de Vise, writes:

The quest for perfection begat hardship and regret. “I didn’t get to do any senior skip days,” [the student said]. “I didn’t get to do any college visits.” The past two years “have probably been the most stressful years of my life,” she said…. It was the mounting pressure to stay perfect, to get to school every day, to earn only A’s. “There were times I felt completely overwhelmed and thought I was never going to be able to maintain this image that everyone had of me,” she said.

Is this extreme ideal, the notion of holding ourselves to a standard of perfection, a desirable standard? Is setting the bar almost impossibly high, denying ourselves some aspects of normalcy and moderation in life, really something aspirational?

That is precisely the question that is raised by the discussion in this week’s Torah portion, Naso, of those who take Nazirite vows. According to the Torah, when a man or a woman takes a Nazirite vow it separates themselves in their relationship with God. These Nazirites would differentiate themselves from the normal practices of their peers by abstaining from wine and liquor, and even from grapes as well, and additionally by refraining from cutting their hair. Throughout the duration of this vow and the accompanying abstinence, the Nazirite is “kadosh,” holy, to God. However, just a few verses later, when the Torah talks about the end of the period of the Nazirite’s vow, he or she brings a sacrifice to the Tent of Meeting. Not just any offering — a chatat, a sin offering. Why would someone who just completed a period of extra-pious, devoted service to God, need to bring a sin offering to the Tabernacle?

The Rambam (Maimonides), medieval commentator and philosopher par excellence, interprets the sin offering as a passing of a certain kind of judgment on the desirability of the Nazirite condition. In Mishneh Torah Hilchot De’ot 3:1, the Rambam cites a Talmudic explanation which concludes that the sin must refer to the Nazirites denying themselves the enjoyment of wine; if someone who only denied themselves the enjoyment of wine is considered a sinner, then what does that say about those who deny themselves other experiences in life? Rambam comments in his Shemoneh Perakim, his introduction to Pirkei Avot, that the Torah’s intention “was that man should follow nature, taking the middle road. He should eat his fill in moderation, drink in moderation. He should dwell amid society in uprightness and faith and not in the deserts and mountains. On the contrary, the Torah explicitly warned us regarding the Nazirite.”

Personally, I think Maimonides’ take is instructive. We should try to avoid being in a place where we feel that missing out on perfection means our life is coming to an end. It is not always about being perfect, nor maintaining an image of perfection for everyone else’s sake; it is about being human. In school and in business we can push ourselves to succeed at a very high level while also enjoying what life has to offer us and without engendering the regret that comes with missing out on those experiences. So work hard, but remember to take the family vacation, take the day off from school or work to go to shul on one of our holidays, even take the senior skip day — and find the balance that Maimonides advises us to seek. May we always appreciate the wonderful gift of our days, even as they quickly pass us by.

Rabbi Ari Sunshine is the senior rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel and is concluding his term as president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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