The Exodus:5 Project
Your lamb shall be without blemish, a yearling male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. Exodus 12:5
A very long time ago for me – more than thirty-five years – I fulfilled the peculiar rite of passage known as the Senior Sermon. Back in the day, each rabbi in the senior class had to give his (yes, his) polished homily in the synagogue of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Arrayed in the front rows were the faculty whose postures and expressions were read like tea leaves for indications of how a student was doing during his presentation. (These days the Senior Sermon is a kinder, gentler experience on Wednesday afternoons.)
The premier faculty member at the time was Prof. Saul Lieberman. A remarkable Talmudist, his attention was not easily engaged on Saturday mornings. In fact, the word was that if you could keep Lieberman awake, it was a great sermon.
The day I spoke was the only Shabbat I ever spent at the Seminary. I had begun my studies in Los Angeles and Jerusalem and then moved to Connecticut where I served as student rabbi most of the week including weekends. So when I arrived at services that Saturday morning, I was in unfamiliar territory. Never shy about public speaking, I stepped up to the podium and delivered my remarks. Throughout my sermon, Prof. Lieberman sat with his eyes wide open.
The sections of Scripture from that week were the story of the golden calf and the instructions about sacrificing the red heifer, born without blemish or even two white hairs. Two perfect beasts, two completely different contexts. I spoke about the jealousy of God, suggesting that there was (rightfully) room only for one perfect being in Creation. Anything that approached perfection – and was therefore worthy of devotion – had to be destroyed.
There aren’t many things I have believed for that long in my life. I still understand that the quest for perfection is futile and even, I would contend, blasphemous. It is futile because it is unachievable in the temporal world. It is blasphemous because it attempts to usurp about the only aspect of God that is unique. Our blemishes make us distinct in this world. Remove them all and they become part of the divine. Insist on remaining separated from the godhead in perfection and you set up a competition between the Holy One and the challenger. The pretender to the Throne of Glory must, of necessity, be the loser. That is why the Ten Commandments begin with the instruction to “have no other God before Me.”
(Since then, I have come to understand that even non-believers are governed by this rule in a peculiar way. We are all imperfect, and therefore the pursuit of perfection seems to me to violate the central tenet of atheism.)
The Israelites who were about to leave Egypt had to sacrifice the nearest thing to perfect they could find. It was a lesson of empowerment over the presumptive gods of Egypt. They had the power over false gods. Only the true God had power over them.
Not quite all of that was in my Senior Sermon, but it has held the attention of a lot of people in a lot of different contexts since that day. But it never ended for me quite the way it did the first time.
As I walked away from the pulpit, Prof. Lieberman motioned me to come over to his seat. I extended my hand. He took it, and pulled me close. People leaned in from every direction to hear what he was going to say to the student who kept him wide awake. “Young man,” he said, “you talk loud!”