A few years ago, when I was attending Jewish Heritage Night at AT&T Park as the Giants beat the Milwaukee Brewers, someone asked me, “Rabbi, how do you say ‘Let’s go Giants’ in Hebrew?” Thrilled to translate anything into Hebrew while in the stands at a major league ballgame, I replied, “Yalla Anakim!”
And indeed, giants make the headlines in this week’s parashah, but as you can imagine, they are not San Francisco Giants. Instead, they are a people who fill the Israelites with fear. As the children of Israel are preparing to enter the promised land, Moses is coaching them, cajoling them and helping them to step up to the responsibility of coming into Israel. He warns them about this am gadol v’ram, this people great and tall, the giants (Anakim) who will be present when they are at their most vulnerable.
This section begins with the words Shema Yisrael, Hear, O Israel; Moses exhorts them with the exact same words of the Shema, the words that proclaim God’s oneness in the world. But then Moses proceeds to call the children of Israel out, once again, for the sin of worshipping the golden calf in the wilderness.
They just didn’t listen to God. Out of fear and frustration, they worshipped the golden calf. The rabbis wonder, “Why would Moses tell them ‘Shema Yisrael’ when they had already clearly demonstrated that they weren’t able to hear and obey God?”
The answer lies in a rabbinic story. Once upon a time, there was a king who gets married. As a wedding gift, he gives his bride two pearls. She loses one of them. He says to her, “OK. you lost the first one, but you better hang on to the second one.”
When the Israelites enter into sacred covenant with God at Mount Sinai, God gives them the Ten Commandments and the package deal of all the mitzvot. The people responded to God, “Everything that you have said, we will do and we will hear — na’aseh v’nishma.” This power-packed phrase contains two pearls: “we will do” and “we will hear.”
When the Israelites worshipped the golden calf, they lost the first pearl: na’aseh, the command to do. They simply couldn’t “do” what God said. They broke a covenantal promise with God. They worshipped an idol when they were supposed to be faithful to God.
But like the bride who loses her first pearl and is told by the king not to lose the second pearl, the rabbis teach that the Israelites could do the same. Just because they messed up the na’aseh (the command to do) doesn’t mean that they have to give up on the second pearl, nishmah, the ability to hear God. The rabbis say that this is why this section begins with the words Shema Yisrael. It teaches us that it is never too late to listen.
This rabbinic take reminds us of the pitfalls of perfectionism. As writer Anne Lamott (“Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”) put it, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor … It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life …”
In a few weeks, on Aug. 12, we will mark Rosh Hodesh Elul, the start of the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah. As we approach the High Holy Days, the annual season of teshuvah (repentance) and forgiveness, we need to remember this simple story about the two pearls: Just because we may have lost one doesn’t mean we should give up on the second. We must realize that perfectionism holds us back from being the best people we can be.
As you examine your own life, think about the figurative pearl you hold. Are you focusing only on the pearl you lost? Are you paralyzed by what you have done in the past? Or will you gently curl your fingers in abundant gratitude around the beautiful pearl right there in your own hand? Will you grasp this very moment to do a mitzvah, the mitzvah that is still within your power to do?
Perfectionism can seem like a giant in our minds. It can rob us from focusing on the pearl in our hand. Believe me, the pearl is a greater gift than the giants … really.