Is “too perfect” a thing? Have you ever worried about being too perfect? Most of us worry that we aren’t perfect enough. But I know of at least one person who worried about being too perfect. Our collective grandfather, Abraham.
The Torah tells us that Abraham recovered from his circumcision in the home of his dear friend, Aner. The Midrash informs us that when G-d instructed Abraham to be circumcised, he consulted his friends, Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Aner advised him against circumcision at his old age. Eshkol advised him to circumcise in private lest his enemies discover his weakness and attack him. Mamre told him that if G-d told him to circumcise, he should obey and not ask any questions. This is why Abraham chose Mamre’s home to recover from his circumcision.
On the surface, Mamre was right. Why would Abraham ask his friends whether to circumcise if G-d appeared to him directly and instructed him to do so?
Jewish mystics explained that this was one instruction that Abraham feared more than anything. Essentially, his fear was that he would become too perfect.
Angels and Humans
G-d created angels before He created humans. But despite the wondrous purity of the angels, G-d wasn’t satisfied with them. He wanted humans. The problem with angels is that they are too perfect. Angels don’t have evil inclinations. They are simply not subject to enticement. You can’t tempt them with a sin of any kind because they aren’t plagued by temptation.
Humans are broken vessels. Humans are drawn to all kinds of imperfections. We have pride, ego, lust, greed, indulgence, and the list goes on. You would think that G-d would prefer angels to humans, but no. G-d wants the imperfect human. Why? Because there is no tension in an angel. There is never a surprise. The outcome is predetermined and there is never even a struggle.
G-d doesn’t want too perfect. G-d wants the imperfect human who is drawn to pleasure and sin, who wrestles with failure and despondency, but overcomes his foibles and does the right thing.
When G-d gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, the angels complained that they are holier and the Torah should be given to them. G-d told Moses to offer a defense.
Moses replied that angels can’t be given a Torah that enjoins us not to steal, kill, or commit adultery. Do you have an evil inclination, he asked them, that you would need to be told not to succumb to it? The Torah was clearly not meant for you. You are too perfect. The Torah was meant for imperfect people, and that is us, humans.
We now return to Abraham’s fear. Although Abraham stood ready to obey any of G-d’s directives, he was afraid of this one. Circumcision would make Abraham too perfect. Without imperfections he would have nothing to wrestle against and nothing to overcome. He would be too perfect. And G-d doesn’t like us too perfect.
The word for circumcision in Hebrew is brit milah—covenant of circumcision. Let’s unpack these words. The word milah—circumcision in Hebrew, is an acronym for the biblical passage, mi ya’aleh lanu hashamaymah—who will ascend before us to the heavens. One who performs a brit milah properly, ascends to the highest heavens. And why?
To answer that we will unpack the word brit— covenant. I have often written about gimatriyah— numeric values of the Hebrew letters. If you calculate the numeric values of the Hebrew letters that spell brit, you will reach 612. That is, one short of the 613 commandments in the Torah.
The message is that if we fulfill this one Mitzvah correctly, we will easily fulfill the other 612 Mitzvot. To fulfill this Mitzvah correctly, we must not only circumcise ourselves, but also treat it as a covenant between us and G-d.
More than any other organ in the human body, the organ of circumcision symbolizes human pleasure. When we circumcise this organ, we make a pact with G-d that we will live for His pleasure rather than for our pleasure.
For most of us, circumcision is mostly about the milah, not so much about the brit—the covenant. Abraham was different. For him, circumcision would be a complete covenant. A complete break with his human inclinations. Going forward, he would live utterly and completely for G-d. If he did this, he would be a complete shoe-in for all the other 612 Mitzvot. There wouldn’t even be a struggle. He would become too perfect.
It turns out that Abraham was right. You will recall that it was G-d who changed his name from Abram to Abraham. By adding the letter hei to his name, the gimatriyah of Abraham’s name became 248—the number of positive commandments in the Torah. G-d changed Abraham’s name just before he instructed him on the covenant of circumcision. Moreover, G-d introduced the idea of circumcision by saying, “walk before me and be complete”—another word for perfect.
Abraham could already see where this was heading. He would circumcise and he would become perfectly righteous and holy. He would have only one passion, one desire. Only to fulfill G-d’s will. (It is not as if Abraham had other passions before circumcising, but at least he could arouse or create them if he wanted to. After circumcision, this would be impossible.)
So, Abraham asked his friends, which is better. To follow this one Mitzvah and lose out on a lifetime of pleasing G-d by struggling and overcoming, or to obey this one Mitzvah.
Mamre put him on the right track. Life is not about being the one to bring pleasure to G-d. Life is about obeying G-d. Can you imagine your wife asking you to go buy her a bagel and you saying that you would rather stay home and please her by reading to her? That would not be pleasing in the least. It would be irritating.
G-d doesn’t grow irritated, but the principle is the same. If G-d told you to circumcise, how can you be smarter than G-d and figure out why it is better for G-d if you don’t honor his request. Go forward and circumcise. Let G-d worry about the rest.
The moral? There are two things we need not worry about.
First, don’t worry about our imperfections. G-d loves our struggles, He loves our triumphs, and He views our occasional failures as opportunities to rebound.
Second, never worry about becoming too perfect. A perfect G-d loves it when imperfect humans strive for perfection.