Striving For Perfection

May 2, 2004

4 min read


Emor (Leviticus 21-24 )

Sforno explains that even though there are blemishes that actually increase the strength and value of an animal, they nevertheless render the animal unfit for sacrifice. Throughout the Torah we find completion and wholeness taking precedence over quantity. Thus in the recitation of the haMotzi blessing, a whole roll takes precedence over a much larger portion of a loaf of bread.

From this we learn that our service of God is measured not by quantity, but by how close it comes to perfection. Since God is the ultimate perfection, our goal must be to also achieve the greatest measure of perfection possible for a human being, for we are exhorted to emulate Him and "to be complete with God." Only by being as close to perfect as possible can we hope to have a relationship with God.

The Kohen is God's representative and the one most directly involved in His most exalted service. He must reflect perfection, and therefore physical imperfections render a Kohen unfit for service in the Sanctuary.

The clearest sign of man's inherent imperfection is death. As the verse says (Psalms 82:6): "I said you are angelic, sons of the most high are you all, but like men shall you die." Because man's mortality constitutes the greatest denial of his quest for perfection, the Kohen, who is to be the embodiment of perfection, is severely curtailed in his contact with dead bodies.

Even ordinary Kohanim, who are permitted to defile themselves for their seven closest relatives, are only allowed to do so if the corpses are complete. Though the Torah permits the Kohen to relate to the spiritual imperfection of man under the extenuating circumstances of a relative's death, this is only if the body is complete, so at least some semblance of perfection still exists.


The Sages tell us (Talmud – Berachos 5b) that whether one does more or less is insignificant. What one actually accomplishes in this world is in the hands of God. The main consideration is that one direct and concentrate his heart toward heaven. What we can control is the intensity of our desire and purity of our effort in the quest for perfection:

Rabbi Yitzchak said: "The Torah teaches us that when a person does a Mitzvah, he should do so with a complete and happy heart. Had Reuven known that the Torah would record that he attempted to save Joseph from his brothers, he would have put him on his shoulders and run with him home. And if Aaron had known that the Torah would record that he would be happy when he met Moses after [Moses was chosen to be the Redeemer], he would have come with drums and cymbals. And if Boaz had known that the prophets would record that he gave Ruth some parched grain to eat, he would have given her a royal banquet." (Midrash – Yalkut Shimoni Ruth 604)

In each instance cited by the Midrash, there was doubt as to what the proper conduct really was. Reuven was unsure if saving Joseph was proper after the brothers judged him a threat to their existence. If Moses questioned his own suitability to be the Redeemer, Aaron likewise had the right to have reservations concerning his brother's appointment. And similarly, Boaz had grounds for doubts about the convert Ruth, not knowing her sincerity and character.

Hence they acted without the complete and happy heart that could have made their Mitzvot perfect, and this blemish was reflected in the outcome of their actions. Joseph was sold into slavery; the mission to Pharaoh met with initial failure (see Ha'amek Davar – Exodus 3:18); and David's lineage was impugned.


After the Jewish people were freed from subjugation in Egypt to serve God, the first step in that service was to strive for perfection. That striving took the form of counting seven complete weeks, 49 complete days, until the giving of the Torah on the fiftieth day.

Fifty represents perfection (50 gates of wisdom, 50 gates of purity). Our task is to count 49. We are not capable of creating perfection; only God can make something perfect. All we can do is strive towards it. But by counting for 49 days, it is as if we counted the fiftieth also. For the fiftieth level is the automatic result of our efforts in securing the first 49.

This is the significance of Lag B'Omer as explained by the Maharsha (Moed Katan 28a). The majority of the omer count is reached when two-thirds of the time passes. That occurs on the thirty-third day. Once most of the period has passed successfully, one can be confident he will be successful in likewise fulfilling the remainder. Lag B'Omer is a day to rejoice in one's successful quest for perfection. The traditional bonfires symbolize the pure, intense fire of the heart that is the basis of our quest for perfection.

The Midrash comments: "When are the days of the omer perfect and complete? When we fulfill God's will" (Vayikra Rabba 28:3). It is the intensity of our quest for perfection in performing God's will that infuses our counting of the omer with added meaning and effectiveness.

May we strive for perfection in all that we do, so that our efforts will be crowned by success by God, Who will bring us to the ultimate perfection, "granting His nation strength and blessing it with peace."

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