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Emor: Good Enough is the New Perfect

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

The word “Emor,” the name of this week’s Torah portion, means “speak.”  In the Torah, God gives instruction to Moses to pass along to the priests. In other words, SPEAK to the priests. I’m translating Emor as “speak up.”  The Department of Homeland Security tells us, “If you see something, say something.”  They’re not wrong.  We DO need to speak up when we see something that doesn’t feel right.

Last week’s parsha included the mitzvah of not standing idly by in the face of wrongdoing.  So, it is with some trepidation that I want to speak up about something I find troubling in Parshat Emor.  I am troubled by an emphasis on perfection as the highest standard, as the only criterion of acceptability.  It makes me uncomfortable that good enough was not good enough in the ancient paradigm, that people and even animals that were less than perfect were rejected.  As a person who struggles with a need for perfection, perhaps I’m hyper-sensitive to this issue?  Let’s examine the evidence:

The parsha begins with the requirements for who a priest marries and who they mourn, and how.   Lots of limitations are imposed on this individual who is supposed to live by some standard of perfection and who is not allowed the basic humanity of grieving when they lose someone they love, and marrying the person their heart calls them to.

If the priest himself is less than physically perfect in any way, they are barred from public service.  The Torah has a whole list of disqualifiers, most of them too embarrassing to read out loud.

There are constraints on who is allowed to eat the sacrificial offerings, and, of course, the animal that is offered has to be without defect.  If it has any blemishes, it’s not good enough.

I like to think that we as a society have moved beyond this heavy sense of judgment regarding perfection, and to a greater sense of acceptance of the blessed diversity in our world.    The perfect, it has been said, is the enemy of the good.  If we judge ourselves and others by the standard of perfection, we will be depressed and lonely.  Our fear of failure can prevent us from even trying, it can cause us to downplay our accomplishments and focus on our mistakes.  It feeds our sense of worry and destroys our peace of mind.

The reality is that perfection is an impossible goal.  “When we try to perfect too many things we lose the ability to go all out on the things that are really important to us,” writes Becky Beaupre Gillespie, co-author of the book “Good Enough is the New Perfect: Finding Happiness and Success in Modern Motherhood” (Harlequin). “Often people lose sight of their passions and deepest desires when they try to be the best at everything.”

In her research, she discovered that the “Good Enoughs” were a lot happier than the “Never Enoughs.”  The Never Enoughs were consumed by worry that depleted their everyday joy.  Is there a way that we can let go of comparing ourselves to others and take pride in doing our best? Can we let go of our constant worry in order to enjoy the present?

None of which is to say that we can’t always learn, that we shouldn’t try to grow, that we can learn from our mistakes and do better.  It just means that we forgive ourselves and others when we are less than perfect.

One of my favorite blessings is the blessing we say when we see someone who appears different.  We offer thanks to God who is “m’shaneh habriyot,” that is, who fills our world with variety.  None of us is perfect.  I wish that the Torah had allowed space for humans and animals who don’t meet some arbitrary standard of perfection, that it had made the case that we include everyone in the priesthood, maybe even women too!, regardless of their physical appearance, emphasizing that we are ALL created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s holy image.

When we read these words, we understand that the Torah was a product of its time, and we can be grateful that Jewish tradition has evolved to an  acceptance and value  of all people and all creatures.

The parsha is “Emor- Speak.”  We need to give ourselves permission to speak not only about what we love about our tradition, but also about ways in which our tradition can and should continue to evolve.

I’ll conclude with these wise words of Vladimir Horowitz- “Perfection itself is imperfection,” or, as our own Hilary Barnes quoted, “We are all perfectly imperfect.”


Becky Beaupre Gillespie, Emor, M'shaneh Habriyot, Vladimir Horowitz

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