Vayikra: Parenting And ‘Perfection’

Vayikra: Parenting And ‘Perfection’

After Moses anoints the Tent of Appointed Meeting and the Priests who will officiate there, God speaks to him:

Explain to the sons of Israel the ways of bringing offerings to God. There will be offerings of animals and grains and fruit. Animals for sacrifice shall be male and without blemish. These animals shall be killed and washed and burned so each shall smoke on the altar in the Tent of Appointed Meeting. This will be for an ascent offering, an offering made by fire in expression of compliance to God and to make atonement before God.

God is very specific in his instruction to Moses on the various kinds of sacrifices to be offered, and how to present them. The purpose of these offerings was to express compliance to God and to make atonement.

The term “sacrifice” comes from the Latin word meaning to make something holy, and, the priestly view of holiness was perfection. The Bible tells us that the way to get closer to God is to offer a perfect or unblemished offering.

Well, that got me thinking about holiness and perfection, and how life doesn’t often match up to that standard. In my work as a psychologist I find that most peoples’ lives can be pretty messy, at least at times. It also occurred to me that this definition of holiness might explain why as Jews, so many of us suffer from a kind of obsessive perfectionism!

But what if holiness is not found in perfection? Or maybe perfection itself is not “perfect?”

I remember when my first child was born. To me, she was utter perfection. So much so, that for a while, I couldn’t bring myself to even trim her tiny fingernails. I didn’t want to interfere. As she grew, it became clear that her development was far from “perfect.” The same can be said of my parenting, as both of my children will happily tell you. As it turns out, my daughter was the kind of child who needed a lot of “interference.” She has significant disabilities and yet with all of her challenges and our mutual imperfection, some of the holiest moments in my life have been with and through her.

The pediatrician turned prominent psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott has this concept of “the good enough” mother. This is the mother who can lovingly provide for her child, yet also gradually and in small doses, help her to deal with the mother’s failures. I was delighted to discover that in Winnicott’s view, which has been pretty much universally accepted by mental health professionals, it is better for a child to have a “good enough” parent, than a “perfect” parent. This is because it is through our failures and reparations that we teach our children some of life’s most important lessons — that it is ok to not be perfect; that relationships can survive ruptures; that we can survive disappointment and anger; how to love someone even if on occasion, they let us down and so on.

I remember several moments during both my children’s early lives when I was overcome by the realization that these tiny people trusted me implicitly and with their whole heart. The first time our family flew after 9/11 was to visit my in-laws, and boarding that flight to Michigan, I felt my confidence crack open with the sudden, hyperawareness of my decision to put my children on an airplane. And they just went along with it! It was one of those moments when the meaning of parental responsibility takes on an entirely new depth and I felt dwarfed by it. Was I capable of making a right, good decision about this? They never questioned it.

There is something profoundly humbling, and yes holy, about parenting any child. God knows it requires sacrifice and our sacrifices are far from perfect. The same can be said of any serious commitment. We may strive for perfection, but the creativity born of grappling with our inevitable limitations brings us to solutions we might not otherwise find.

So, in the end, I’m quite sure that my personal experiences of holiness do not fit the priestly definition. They resonate more closely with the Leonard Cohen song that says:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

The other day, after a frustrating, “Who’s on first” kind of phone conversation with my daughter, I barked some directive at her in irritation and got off the phone. I called her later to apologize. “That’s OK, Mom,” she told me “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You are bossy sometimes, but you’re working on it.” Ah yes, that’s how the light gets in!

Dr. Nancy Crown is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City.

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