Guide to Imperfection

Moshe Goldstein, Brooklyn, NY
Essays 2018

MyLife Essay Contest 2018

Jake struggles in his own constant battle. Although everyone wants to do the right thing, he takes it to the extreme. Every detail of his handiwork has to match his own perfect self-image. When things are exact and to plan, then he can accomplish great things, but if he veers off-path slightly, then “what’s even the point of the fight?” As our advice to Jake, we teach him about self-nullification, and to bring G-d into his life. The physical world is temporary, and we just need to do our small roles, but as G-d wants it: With happiness. Take a look at Jake’s day, and pay close attention to the details of his story.

The day when life lost control.

Waking up, Jake looks at the alarm clock, and emits a loud groan. “I forgot to reset my alarm. Now it’s an hour late. Ugh…” And with that, he rolls over and drifts off again. Waking up an hour later, he decides he’s ready, and gets dressed. “Hmm…, my left foot is a little bigger, so I’ll tie my shoe a bit tighter… Now my right one is loose… Yeah, that’s good… I think…” Wobbling over to the sink, he washes his hands, and begins the morning prayers. “I’m really supposed to think about what I’m saying here, but I never even tried it before. I’ll just say it plain.” Towards the middle, he sits down to recite the Shema.[1] “But this I always managed to concentrate on. Even though I’m really tired now, I’ll have to try and focus.” So, after a super long half an hour of repeating words endless times to get it all right, he finishes the prayer, and rushes on with the rest.

Finally, he closes his prayer book, and glances around, looking for the Talmud he always learns from in the morning. There, in the corner, is a book, but noticing the cover, he gives a sad smile. This is the unfinished novel which he started writing. But now, only half way through, it lay untouched for months. He finally finds the right Tractate, and opens up to the correct page, but stares blankly at the words. “I’m too tired to learn it properly anyway,” he decides, as he stand up, and puts it back in its place. “Let’s see,” Jake muses, looking at his watch, “the office opens in half an hour. But I always workout now for 45 minutes… I was never late for work before, but how can I only workout for twenty minutes? I can’t compromise on that, but what about work???!” With a final agonizing moan, he collapses on his bed, fretting over his plight, and uncertain for the future.

Behind the scenes

  1. Ego

Although you wouldn’t like to be called it, Jake, everyone by nature has ego. That’s called Yeshus. This is the main problem, and is, in fact, the cause for any negative attribute a person may have.[2] It really just means that you see yourself, at least somewhat, as an independent entity, apart from G-d, Heaven forbid.[3] This means that everything in creation is based around you, and it all has to be exactly how you want it. All that you do has to be equal, and exactly in place with everything else,[4] like Sudoku. Because, after all, you exist, and that’s all that matters in life. That’s totally natural, but in this case, it may be a bit more than the average person.

  1. Extreme expectations

Now, I have news for you: Nobody was ever created to be perfect, and that’s a fact.[5] It sounds wonderful that you want to reach your highest potential, but there’s a little problem: What is your potential in this world? There are a select few people in each generation, known as Tzaddikim,[6] who aren’t even able to sin, because of the extraordinary lofty level of their soul.[7] But as for us regular folks? We have to constantly fight with our “Bad Side,” and do good, even though we don’t really want to.[8] And here’s the kicker: What happens if we fail? That’s actually part of the plan! G-d wants us to have impediments in our mission, but do it anyway.[9] What, in simple terms, is that? Imperfection at its finest.

  1. Improper motivation

But you really do want to do what’s right, right? Doesn’t G-d desire our service to be in the best way that we can do it? It’s a question of whom we are serving. Is it G-d, or ourselves? In this instance, you aren’t doing it for G-d’s sake, rather for your own pleasure. What you like is order and perfection. In your life, you were brought up doing these things which G-d commanded you to do, and now, you’re only continuing to do it because you can’t imagine yourself changing from your hard set routine to relinquishing control. But you really don’t care if this is a mandate from Heaven, or your own personal habit. So, really, no. Your motive for doing it right in the beginning wasn’t proper anyhow.[10] It is true that working for the wrong reason will eventually lead you to do it with real feeling,[11] but there’s a still a problem in this case: Perfection can’t last, and you won’t be able to continue doing it for very long because you won’t settle for anything less.

  1. Collapse

Now, after all is said and done, you’ve got a certain mindset developed here. The position you find yourself in, is that everything must be without any letdowns, and fully seamless. And even though this isn’t right, it still may work out for some time, and things will come out looking pretty nice. But then we get to that little hitch; that eventuality of some mistake occurring in your masterplan. Once your brittle structure gets a crack in it, you won’t be able to keep it up for long, and you’ll go crashing down with it. The example given is of a bendable reed compared to strong cedar wood. It’s tough all right, but not very flexible. While a reed, on the other hand, may not be the perfect structure of the forest, but it bends to the will of others, and that quality is what matters in a person’s life. Not to give up your sense of being, but also not to be rigid and set without room for change. What happens if you are set in your ways, without compromise? You crack.[12] It can’t be that things aren’t going your way, so life is definitely going to get complicated now, if you try and get it back on track. Otherwise you simply get stressed out, and that’s not fun, or allowed.[13]

How it affected the day

With all of that in mind, let’s now take a look at how these four problems drove you through your day. Throughout every detail, it was all driven by Yeshus, which causes you to need perfection. Starting with waking up exactly on time, and continuing to tying your shoes with utmost precision. As I said, every bad trait stems from this. You couldn’t handle being not exactly how you want to be, since after all, life’s all about you. And, throughout your day, you tried to reach this perfection. And if you couldn’t get it fully, then you either just didn’t do it at all, like that Talmud which you missed out on. Or you ended up not knowing what to do with yourself, and having a meltdown,[14] when you realized that you have to give up on your impeccable job record, or your strict workout regimen.

Then there’s the higher expectation you demanded of yourself. You started writing a book, but it wasn’t practical. After every new chapter, the plot gets so thick and complicated, that it takes way too long to figure out how to link it all in. You expected it to be perfect, but that’s impossible. And then, when you were too tired to learn with the devotion you’re used to, you just gave up, because how could you settle for anything less than outstanding, if that’s what you are supposed to be. Really, even a less than perfect day is magnificent, if you just put in some effort.[15] Thinking too highly of your capabilities is will backfire if it causes you to have higher than realistic expectation, and therefore giving up midway.

When you had your beautiful concentration by Shema, it seemed to be just what you were supposed to do. But there is a problem: You weren’t really driven by your intense longing for G-d, with love and fear. Rather, it’s just that you always did this since your childhood.[16] And the proof is that by the rest of the Prayers, you didn’t put in any focus at all. Why? For the same reason: You never did it before anyway. So really, you aren’t driven by regular moral concerns, rather just by your immaculate perfectionism. Meaning, that if you can do it exactly how you think it should be, then you’re all in, and get it done to its fullest. But if you can’t reach your goal, then who cares about it anyway?

And finally, there’s the issue of not being able to keep up with your strict performance which you so love. When you get it all right, then you’re on the top of the world, but if you realize that it just won’t go, then it gets ugly. Perfection cannot last, being that we are all human, who are programmed to make mistakes, and be inconsistent. So, when you always come to work exactly on time, you were only doing it for your persistent record, not because you cared about your job. Now it’s ingrained in your head that you just can’t be late.[17] And when finally, you see that you will have to be late, you aren’t able to handle it. It would have been better to anticipate and accept that you will end up being unpunctual sometimes. In that way, you would have been able to keep it up for longer.[18]

Recalibrate life

Now that we have all of this down pat, we see how you have a certain mentality which drives your life. As I said, the main problem here is Yeshus, your feeling of self-importance. But with the help of G-d, and his instructions to us through the Rebbeim,[19] we can amend any hindrances. And through following what the Rebbe tells us, he will, in fact, help us do the right thing.[20] Based on what was taught, we will now bring in some ways to change direction, and try to bring this situation to a close:

  1. Meditate.

Yeshus is your attitude, and outlook on life. It’s therefore part of your very mind and emotions. The solution, then, is to battle it by changing your thoughts,[21] which is the closest thing to emotions that we have control over.[22] Here are some meditations, which you should go over in your head, until you understand it very well. After some time, it will actually be internalized, and can alter how you practically behave in life.[23] But you must bear in mind that you’re playing around with your very psychological makeup, and it’s therefore going to take a long time. [24]It may be months until you will finally be able to change how you think.

First of all, here’s a story:[25] A student of Rabbi Yisroel Ba’al Shem Tov[26] once visited Rabbi Dov Ber (The Maggid) of the city of Mezeritch.[27] Upon being ushered inside with a warm welcome, he looked around at the humble interior. He was amazed to see that the entire furnishings of the house were made up of old blocks of wood, piled against each other to form some chairs and a table. Later on, the boxes were turned over to make beds for the children. Unable to contain his astonishment, he asked The Maggid: “How can you live your life like this? Where is the furniture in your house?” The Maggid replied with a question likewise: “I see your wagon outside, but there isn’t any fancy furniture within it.  How do you manage on the road?” The traveler smiled, curiously. “Why, when I’m traveling, everything is just temporary, so I don’t need anything special, just my basic necessities to get by on. But at home, things are very different.” The Maggid smiled in return, and responded. “I, too, am just on a journey. This whole physical world is just a short tunnel. My real home is where my inner, true, self belongs. Namely, the world to come, which is truly eternal. There’s no need to settle down here so comfortably, but at home, things are very different.”

Along these lines, anytime that there’s a decision which you are taking a bit too seriously, you can continually tell yourself: “It’s inconsequential,” or “Let it go.” Don’t get caught up on these things, even if they seem to be substantial. Really, nothing physical is important, and the only thing which actually exists is G-d.[28] Don’t let your emotions get involved, and think of the case rationally.[29]

And importantly, remember that you’re just human, and nobody is able to be perfect. Even though a world without sin seems ideal, that’s not the design which G-d is orchestrating. Service is meant to be flawed sometimes, as long as we try our best with our given capabilities. Even if you crave to be exact, it won’t last forever, and in the end it’ll break. Think of the fact that it just isn’t meant to be, and be happy with the fact that G-d loves your effort. After all, this is how it was all designed to be: A speech may not be something to be excited about, but it’s very entertaining to hear the same words from an animal: A parrot, who doesn’t even know what it’s talking about. G-d loves when we do His will, which we can’t even begin to understand, and even though it won’t get done perfectly.[30]

Even though you want to serve G-d as best as you could, always keep in mind that after all, G-d is the only existence, and the final say. It is He who actually decides whether your toil will bear any fruits. So, don’t try to outsmart Him. If you aren’t meant to succeed in your exertion, then you won’t, and no matter how hard you try. It’s all up to G-d, but He still wants your effort. How He wants it is very simple: G-d will give you all types of good, whether spiritual or physical, but you have to do your part, in keeping with nature. Don’t try harder than nature demands, rather only as much as G-d expects, and especially in regards to material pursuits.[31] Even in spirituality, if you are getting anxious, to the point of severe stress, then you’ve gone too far. G-d wants his service, but only through happiness. A Jew must always be happy, and that breaks through all boundaries.[32] Only then can he perform his work.[33]

  1. Avoid precision from the start

When it comes to your actual practical performance, do it with restraint. Before you start a project, remember all that I just explained, and apply it: Do just what needs to be done, and don’t make it exact, with the minutest details carefully researched. Rather, remember that if it’s too perfect, it won’t last. If you try grabbing too much, then you won’t be able to get anything. Keep it simple, and in a way that will last for longer. Although emotions are nearly impossible to transform, we all have control over our thoughts, speech, and actions.[34] Therefore, when it comes down to it, act in moderation.

Since it’s all G-d’s doing anyway, don’t focus on your own strengths to get you going. Rather, realize that you need G-d’s help. He is the only one to enable you to fulfill your mission.[35] You won’t be able to do it exactly how you want it, but it’s more than enough for G-d. All that you have to do is try, but remember that it’s really not you accomplishing it after all. Don’t feel bad that you can’t get to the top in your scheme of things, because G-d decides exactly how much you’re able to do. So, just be happy, knowing that you are, in fact, doing your best, even though you didn’t succeed to the pinnacle of your dreams. You weren’t necessarily supposed to. And always keep in mind that mess-ups are probably going to happen.

When it comes to undertaking an assignment, bring G-d into the picture, and don’t just have your own interests in mind. Realize that the only reason why you’re doing anything is because He wants you to. Don’t do it because you like it, or for any other ulterior motive, rather, just because it’s the right thing.[36] If you remember G-d in all of your dealing, then it’ll be harder to be dragged away with your unconventional ideas and procedures.[37] Otherwise, you’ll only be able to keep it up as long as the reason exists. Afterwards, you won’t have any motivation.[38] Only work on G-d’s missions, and remember the reason why you’re here to begin with.

  1. Resume after disappointments

If, after all is said and done, you inevitably messed up, one way or another, then don’t let it get you down. As we said, G-d expects, and wants, mistakes. So, don’t forget about what you’re doing, and just give up, rather, remember that it was predicted to happen from the start. If you tried hard, but only got 99, then it’s really not bad at all. Life isn’t an all or nothing experience. Getting one point off of a perfect score is just like getting 76 instead of 77. It’s really just one point.

Even if it is truly a big blunder, which is contrary, G-d forbid, to the Torah, there’s still no reason to despair. This was part of the plan as well, since G-d included a very specific commandment just for this case. It’s called Teshuva, returning. This entails realizing that what you’ve done wasn’t the right thing to do; and that you resolve not to do it again.[39] After making that quick reflection you must be happy, and be confident that you were forgiven.[40] The effect of your resolution makes changes in the higher realms. Even though your deed created a rip in the upper cosmos,[41] this act of Teshuva erased it completely. In fact, if you would look at your life’s “book” which G-d keeps in heaven, you wouldn’t even see a trace of the misdeed. It just disappears, as if it never happened. Literally.[42]

If you feel bad or disappointed with something which happened, then remember this: Sadness is from the Evil Inclination itself, and no good will come of it. If you get discouraged because of your faults, then it dances for joy. That was its plan to begin with. It knows that happiness is your biggest weapon to be able to do good, so it tries and prevents it. It pretends to be virtuous, and claims that you messed everything up, beyond repair.[43] But instead, just get up and get past it, since in fact, it never happened.

Now, I explained before that perfection makes things easy. So, after this slipup which you’re now in the middle of, it gets complicated. Now you’ve lost your lust for the whole project. If you started out with the knowledge that it won’t be perfect, then you won’t get caught up in the hitches along the road. But now that your fueled by your very consistent nature, then you can’t let in problems, and instead accept defeat. So now it starts getting sticky, and the going isn’t as smooth, so what to do? It sounds tough, but this is what G-d wants from us: To work with grueling effort. In fact, it’s not supposed to be easy. A Jew must always be going up, and that involves heavy pedaling to reach the top, and then to continue from there as well.[44] If it’s difficult to do what you must, then the only way past it is by pushing yourself. Hard work isn’t just physical energy, but rather the fact that you would rather not be doing it. Just remember that the more challenging it is, the more pleasure G-d derives from it.[45] So, keep up the good work!


In order to remember all that you have to do, here is the outline of your new line of work:

  1. For five minutes every night, meditate on the fact that it’s all up to G-d, and you are just a minor detail in your life, with inaccuracies an integral part of the experience.
  2. When it comes to implementation, don’t even try to achieve perfection.
  3. When you fail, pretend that it never happened, and recommence with strength and happiness.

Here is the common guideline, but everyone is different, and developments occur. In truth, we aren’t as smart as we think we are, especially when it comes to steering our own life. Therefore, we must appoint for ourselves a mentor, to tell us what G-d wants, and educate us in our mode of service.[46] As an outsider, and somewhat smarter than ourselves, they have an unbiased, and brighter attitude on how to develop our qualities. With their help, and the will to change on our part, we can truly change the way we live for the better, and help bring Moshiach now!

[1] Siddur Tehilas Hashem with English translation, 2002, pp. 42.

[2] Sefer HaMaamorim 5659, 2011, 2nd addition: Isa B’zohar Chelek Gimmel, middle of first segment, pp. 269.

[3] Ibid. Second segment.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tanya, chapter 12.

[6] Lit. “Righteous men.”

[7] Ibid., chapter 10.

[8] Ibid., chapter 12.

[9] Ibid., chapter 27.

[10] Ibid., end of chapter 39.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sefer HaMaamorim 5659, Ibid., middle of second segment, pp. 269.

[13] Tanya, chapter 26.

[14] Ibid., chapter 27.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., end of chapter 39.

[17] Ibid., end of chapter 15. “Habit becomes second nature.”

[18] Sefer HaMaamorim 5659, Ibid.

[19] Consecutive leaders of Chabad Chasidim. See The Rebbeim, by R. Sholom Ber Avtzon, 1992.

[20] Tanya, section four: Igeres Hakodesh, part one of epistle 27, middle.

[21] Tanya, middle of chapter 14.

[22] Ibid., beginning.

[23] Ibid., middle.

[24] Ibid.,

[25] Once Upon a Chassid, by Yanki Tauber, 1994, pp. 35.

[26] First Chassidic leader, 18’th century.

[27] Disciple and successor of The Ba’al Shem Tov.

[28] Second section of Tanya: Sha’ar HaYichud V’HaEmuna, chapter 3.

[29] Tanya, chapter 13.

[30] Ibid., second half of chapter 27.

[31] L’kutei Sichos, volume 2, pp. 535, segment 6.

[32] Sefer Hama’amorim 5657, 1984, pp. 223.

[33] L’kutei Sichos, volume 20, pp. 507, segment 17.

[34] Tanya, chapter 14.

[35] Ibid., chapter 13.

[36] Ibid., end of chapter 39.

[37] Sefer HaMa’amorim 5710-5711, 1986, end of Basi L’Gani, pp. 118.

[38] Avos, chapter 5, Mishna 17.

[39] Derech Mitzvosecho, 1991, Mitzvas Vidui U’Teshuva, pp. 28, first segment; Tanya, third section: Igeres HaTeshuva, middle of epistle 1.

[40] Ibid., epistle 11; Tanya, chapters 31 and 26.

[41] Derech Mitzvosecho, Ibid.

[42] Tanya, third section: Igeres HaTeshuva, epistle 8.

[43] Tanya, end of chapter 26.

[44] Ibid., chapter 15.

[45] Ibid., and second half of chapter 27.

[46] L’kutei Sichos, volume 24, pp. 105, segment 4.