This time of year my friends and family know that I have only one thing on my mind: my Yom Kippur sermon. The late start of the Jewish holidays has given me the impression that I have more time than usual, which has only exacerbated my inclination to procrastinate. I’ve written enough sermons to know my process: get an idea, read/ruminate on it, freak out that I don’t have anything to say, and finally let the creative spirit find me and take me on my sermon journey.
My challenge this year isn’t my subject, it’s me. I can’t get over another sermon I wrote. Two years ago, my sermon was perfect. No, wait. It was about perfection. But it felt like a perfect sermon. Writing and delivering it was one of the proudest moments of my rabbinic career. And when I read it now, I only wish that I could give it again. Or, write something even more perfect.
In that sermon, I outed myself as a “recovering perfectionist,” for I had seen perfection as the ultimate goal for much of my life. Though I wish the themes of the Jewish season of renewal, repentance, and redemption would fill my heart and mind, instead I am filled with the lust of the “perfect” sermon.
Wrestling with perfection is not new. Though we know it is illusive and imaginary, we lust after it. We imagine that the perfect [body, job, relationship, vacation, home] is possible, if only we are willing to work harder for it. We push ourselves past the point of rescue as we pursue what we know is not possible and often, not worth it.
Our culture has seemed to understand how dangerous perfection is–brave designers at New York Fashion Week featured models of all shapes and sizes, celebrities brag about their “makeup-free” selfies, and “balance” has become the new buzzword. Confident imperfection feels like the new perfection.
During these days that lead us to the High Holy Days we are instructed to take a cheshbon hanefesh–a spiritual accounting where we take an honest look at our lives. We look into the mirror and try and see what lies beneath the surface. Our neuroses. Our bad habits and destructive routines. The way in which we chase perfection at the price of what really matters the most.
When my mind starts to spin about my perfection sermon, what I’ve always considered my “perfect” sermon, I try and stop. I take a few deep breaths and say a prayer of forgiveness. I forgive myself for lusting after perfection. I remind myself how very human I am. And I remember that no one sitting in my congregation is judging me on a scale of zero to perfection. Deep inside, I know that no one wants a perfect sermon. They want a real message. Something to make them think, to push them toward their best selves, to provide another viewpoint. They’ve never expected perfection — after seven years they know what to expect — hard work, excellence and authenticity. They know they will get me.
This time of year I only have one thing on my mind — my sermon. Which means I am doing a lot of writing and stopping and breathing and forgiving. And reminding myself how very human I am.
Karen Perolman is the associate rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, NJ. Ordained in 2010 by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Karen credits her involvement with NFTY, URJ Camp Harlam, and the Maryland Hillel community with her desire to pursue the rabbinate, including a pivotal summer traveling with the NFTY in Israel program. Karen is a voracious reader which fuels her passion to understand the intersections between food, politics, Judaism, feminism and social justice. She can be found on twitter @rabbikrp.