Perfectly Imperfect

By Faigy Schwei, Brooklyn, NY
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016


How many of us have attempted to accomplish something great only to give up after a short while?  How often do we find ourselves feeling worthless, full of despair, and unmotivated? Oftentimes this comes from the “all or nothing” mindset of perfectionism. By  applying the teachings of  Chassidus that each small victory is precious and that we don’t need to wait for perfection to start acting, we persevere and can achieve great things.



When we ascribe to the “all or nothing”  mindset, we assume that we must succeed in all that we do or not do it at all. We refuse to accept a standard that is less than perfect, and we set unrealistic goals.

When we discover that we are not perfect, and we experience setbacks, it completely destroys us, and prevents us from exerting ourselves and moving forward. The “all or nothing” mindset leads one to utter despair, depression, and prevents one from truly attaining success.

By doing one small thing at a time and reveling in each accomplishment you have the whole world ahead of you and can accomplish anything you set your heart to do.



The Alter Rebbe teaches us in Tanya[1] (a.k.a. Sefer shel Beinonim – The Book of Intermediates) that we were created to serve Hashem by reaching the level of a Beinoni (intermediate), and we may never reach the perfection of a Tzadik (perfectly righteous person). The task of a Beinoni is, despite his imperfections and his persistent evil thoughts, to constantly battle with his unholy thoughts and impulses and to subdue them. When a Beinoni is devastated by his sinful thoughts, he should realize that his disappointment stems from  arrogance. His drive for perfection is a result of his false expectation to reach the realm of a Tzadik.

In truth, a Beinoni must not reach perfection. Rather, his continuous struggle to battle evil is his foremost goal. When he begins to let go of the desire for perfection, he can revel in his accomplishments, and appreciate each small victory in his personal battle.

Ironically, when we stop trying so hard to be perfect and achieve success, and we begin to appreciate our smallest victories, we will eventually see success.



It says (Avos 4:1) “Who is strong? One who overpowers his evil inclination.”  Each time we do something that is difficult for us, whether it is abstaining from something  we should not be doing, or doing something that we should,  we strengthen ourselves. As it says about Yosef Hatzadik,[2] “He restrained himself”. Rashi interprets this to mean  “he strengthened himself.” By holding back from negativity we get stronger, and it becomes easier for us the next time. (Ask anyone who’s succeeded  on a diet…)

The Alter  Rebbe  goes on to explain (Tanya Ch 27) that with every time we push away evil thoughts the sitra achara (other side, i.e. forces of evil)  is suppressed here below in This World, which produces a corresponding suppression of the sitra achara in the Upper Worlds.  This gives Hashem great pleasure. The Alter Rebbe then encourages us not to feel depressed or give up if we have struggles along the way, even if the struggle is constant “…for perhaps this is what he was created for, and this is the service demanded of him.”1

Keeping this in mind and noticing each act of self control as having great ramifications in this world and in the worlds above empowers us  to keep going, even when the going gets tough.



In the maamer of V’isha achas[3] the Alter Rebbe explains the story of Elisha and the oil[4] as a parable for the neshama. The soul cries out to Hashem that her fire towards Him, i.e. her love and fear of Hashem, have died. Elisha answers her: Go and bring empty vessels, borrowed vessels, as many as you can find. Meaning, go fulfill Torah and mitzvos anyway, even if they are empty and lacking the love and fear that should accompany them. Don’t wait until your mitzvos are completely perfect to act. Just do it! As it says in Sefer Hachinuch[5] “The heart is drawn after the actions.”



Instead of thinking of a goal as a huge undertaking, think of how it can be broken down into bite size steps. Each one is a small victory, and a reason for celebration in its own right.

  • Prayer:

Instead of “I have no time to pray, I’m a busy executive/mom/etc.” Can I  fit in one small prayer to my daily schedule?

  • Character development:

Rather than labeling:  “I can never be a generous/patient/responsible etc. person,” Can I  shatter my self perception by noticing the one time I did exercise that character trait and celebrate it? This will  keep me encouraged and motivated.

  • Learning:

A snowstorm starts with one tiny snowflake at a time. Start small. The Talmud isn’t covered in one night. It’s slow and steady. Those who study daf yomi (a daily page of Talmud) reach their goal and conclude the entire Talmud  in approximately seven years. The same goes for daily learners of  Rambam, concluding in one  or three years.[6] Recognize and celebrate your perseverance.

  • Addiction:

Holding back from an addictive behavior, even once,  is a big achievement and should be celebrated. For example, resisting  that second piece of cake, the urge to yell, or the compulsion to go online yet again. This encourages us to move forward to make better choices.

  • Depression/Despair:

Feeling down can keep you from doing what you need to do. A surefire way of getting out of that mood is to just do it. Even if you don’t feel like it — you have empty vessels lacking the emotions —  do it and the feelings will come later.

  • Interactions with others:

Notice every positive interaction you have with others; a word of encouragement or praise, a word of gratitude and thanks, to a child/spouse/friend/coworker.

  • Teach your children/students to celebrate their victories by sharing with family and friends, writing them down in a notebook, or for young children, by making a chart.



Rambam says[7] “Each person must view himself and the entire world as being half meritorious and half guilty. If he does a single mitzvah, he can tip the scale and bring redemption and salvation to the entire world.”

By valuing each small achievements, like the Beinoni whose every act of self control is his success, we can accomplish great things, change ourselves and the world, one small victory at a time.




[1] Tanya Ch 27

[2]Bereishis 43:31

[3] Maamarei Admur Hazakein Haketzorim p 136

[4] Melochim Beis 4:1. The Navi tells a story of a woman who came crying to Elisha that her husband died and she is in debt. The creditor now wants to come and take her two children as slaves. Elisha tells her to bring all the empty vessels she can find. When she does so, Elisha begins pouring oil into the vessels and miraculously the oil did not get used up and kept on pouring until all the vessels were full. The woman was then able to sell the oil and have enough money to live.

[5] Sefer Hachinuch mitzvah 16 (p 6)

[6] The cycle of the study of Rambam is concluded in one year for those who study three chapters daily, and in three years for those who study one chapter daily.

[7] Mishneh Torah of the Rambam, Hilchos Teshuva, 3:4