Imperfect Perfection

February 23, 2024 / 14 Adar 5784

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, we once again read the details of the High Priest’s vestments and the associated rules and regulations for getting him correctly clothed to fulfill his priestly duties. In fact, last year I wrote about the biblical law of shatnez and how the Torah instructs the High Priest to break this preventative law by wearing a unique belt that blends two forbidden materials from ever being used together in a single clothing item.

This year, although I once again draw our attention to this strange “positive” do-commandment to mix the forbidden materials, which supersedes the “negative” shatnez don’t-commandment prohibiting the blending of the fabric, I wanted to raise the question of why Gd might task the High Priest to be imperfect in his perfection.

First, a word about oxymorons. As a child more interested in math and science than the humanities, oxymorons had a mathematical contrarianism, an unequal equality that I found fascinating. How could our brain make sense of acting naturally, or something being awfully good, or how I was all too frequently clearly misunderstood?

Yet, it is the High Priest’s imperfect perfection highlighted in Tetzaveh that might best explain my lure to oxymorons… because they just make sense. Yes, they might have been created to generate humor or highlight irony, but the fact is that when the yin and yang of a good oxymoron are in balance, true harmony has the opportunity to shine through, emphasizing this perfect equilibrium.

During Temple times, the High Priest’s role was to act as a liaison between the people and Gd. The High Priest was not an alternative to a sovereign leader. There was no inherited wealth or presumed hierarchical role. Rather, in Jewish tradition, any child, even one yet unborn, could be promised to the priesthood to serve Gd. [There is the famous story of Hannah silently praying for a child, being mistaken for a drunken fool by Eli the priest. Even so, Hannah still promises Gd that if given the opportunity to bear a child then he would be promised to the priesthood (I Samuel 1:11-28).]

Being a priest required a lifetime of training and a duty to serve. So, what better way for Gd to reinforce this message of equity to the people than to make the priests, with their elaborate and sanctified garments, and with their special training that brought them closer to Gd through their ritual responsibilities, still “imperfect.”

Our lesson this week is that our focus should not dwell on the negatives that are so easily seen in ourselves and others. Instead, let us turn our gaze towards the positives, the strengths, and the potential for good that resides within each of us. Let the High Priest’s role inspire us to look beyond the surface, to recognize the inherent value in every person, and to build our relationships on the foundation of empathy, understanding, and appreciation for the unique qualities that each individual brings to the table.

Let us internalize the lesson of the High Priest’s imperfect perfection to be a call to action for each of us to serve with humility, to love without condition, and to uplift one another in our shared journey towards a more compassionate and understanding world. Just as Gd chose the “imperfect priests” to serve in the Temple, may we too choose to build our communities and relationships not on the basis of perfection, but on the beauty of our shared faults, highlighting the positives, and in doing so, draw closer to the Divine, embodying the values of compassion, empathy, and unconditional love that are at the heart of our tradition. Because we are…


Shabbat Shalom.