On My Mind

Confronting the Suboptimal

Whether attributable to Voltaire, to Montesquieu or to Rabbi Yissocher Frand, shlit”a, at the most recent Siyum HaShas, “perfect is the enemy of the good” is an aphorism most of us commonly embrace. Success in life, peace of mind and most surprisingly, even religious growth are dependent upon recognizing that perfection is an elusive ideal. This realization, however, is also accompanied by challenges.

We begin our encounter with imperfection by acknowledging human frailty and the inescapability of sin. Even the most strict religious leaders sympathetically cite the pasuk in Koheles (7:20) “Ein tzaddik ba’aretz asher ya’aseh tov v’lo yechetathere is no righteous person in the land who does good and never sins.” In acknowledging our vulnerability to sin, however, we also recognize sin’s impermissibility. The issue is black and white, good and bad. We may fall prey to transgressions, but after acknowledging a failure, we feel regret and seek to do better.

Most of our encounters with inadequacy, however, are far more complex. Rarely can we “have it all,” and so we grapple with trade-offs and acclimate to the imperfect. In the mundane and in the significant, in pragmatism and in halachah, communally and individually, we are perpetually required to compromise and accommodate.

Initially we may resent the imperfections of life and the flawed world that surrounds us, but eventually we adapt. As part of our maturation process, we learn to tolerate dashed expectations. And just as we learn to accept our own weaknesses and inadequacies, we eventually accept the same in our spouses, children, friends and others. If we are truly mature, we further mitigate our cynicism and indignation by acknowledging that no community is pristine, no culture unblemished, no job unchallenging and no journey free of bumps.

Becoming comfortable with the suboptimal, however, comes at a cost. For example, being overly generous in judging ourselves and others can result in lowered expectations. It would be tragic if tolerance of compromised standards suppressed aspirations for greatness. It would be equally tragic, however, if failure to temper excessively ambitious goals quashed joy and satisfaction. This paradox arises in all aspects of our personal lives, ranging from developing skills to fostering relationships, from building wealth to preserving one’s health. For Orthodox Jews, however, the danger of succumbing to mediocrity is probably most acute in the realm of religious growth and observance.

Suboptimal in Halachah
A rabbinically mandated mitzvah should be performed lechatchila, in an optimal manner (lechatchila literally means “in the first instance”). When mitzvah performance mistakenly falls short, halachah will occasionally deem the deficient performance to be acceptable bedieved (meaning “after the fact”).

For example, before consuming wine, fruits, vegetables and baked items, we are required to recite a berachah specific to that category of food or beverage, rather than the catch-all berachah of “Shehakol,” which is recited prior to consuming other categories of food and drink. If one mistakenly recited Shehakol when a different blessing was required, after the fact, bedieved, the Shehakol berachah suffices.

The suboptimal bedieved standard is periodically sanctioned even in advance of the performance of a mitzvah, but only under onerous circumstances. For example, in advance of the Pesach Seder, a rabbi may deem it acceptable for an individual who falls ill after drinking wine, or who has insufficient funds to purchase wine, to substitute grape juice to fulfill the obligation to drink four cups of wine. In addition to occasionally permitting bedieved options for individuals, the halachic system also recognizes the occasional need for sanctioning lowered standards on a broad, communal-wide basis. For example, to avoid significant financial loss or to safeguard human dignity, Chazal will occasionally moderate a general halachic ordinance. And rabbinic recognition of the occasional need to tolerate a less-than-ideal standard is perhaps most conspicuous in the dictum that a communal decree, however purposeful it may be, should not be issued by the rabbis “ela im kein rov tzibbur yecholin la’amod bah, unless most within the general community can reasonably be expected to abide by it” (Bava Kamma 79b).

The Hazards of Suboptimal in Halachah
While halachic bedieved, and the occasional kula (leniency), are necessary accommodations, these variances can also be disconcerting and disorienting. Similarly, confusion and resentment may result when encountering a commonly misguided assertion that a particular chumra (stringency) is a necessity, rather than a suggested or optional stringency.

Perhaps because there is rarely a single halachic standard applicable to all, chumras and kulas, as well as the lechatchila or bedieved manners of practice, are frequently mistakenly viewed as mere menu options, to be selected at whim. Performance of a mitzvah in accordance with a bedieved standard, however, is only valid after the fact if it had unwittingly been performed that way in error or if extenuating circumstances compelled its adoption. I must have been about twelve years old when I overheard a friend of my parents, a”h, dismissively belittling rabbis who declined to recognize particularly lenient kashrus standards. “Either it’s kosher or it’s not kosher,” he asserted. At the time, the statement struck me as logical and reasonable. Alas, it is actually untrue.

While lechatchila itself may have a range of acceptable standards, there are boundaries beneath which a leniency is valid only bedieved, as a last resort. Sometimes bedieved standards are mistakenly adhered to out of simple ignorance. Other times, however, people deliberately choose ease and convenience, improperly allowing the less-than-optimal standard to become the norm. For example, bedieved, one who unavoidably arrives late to morning minyan may truncate Pesukei D’Zimra, if necessary, to catch up to the minyan. Some men inappropriately adopt this practice when davening at home or rely on the practice to deliberately arrive late to minyan. And there are women who regrettably curtail or entirely abstain from daily davening even in the absence of any halachic justification, such as competing parenting obligations.

Occasionally a bedieved, or an even wholly inappropriate halachic standard, is adopted by people as normative after they observe the practice seemingly being condoned by trustworthy individuals, while failing to appreciate the circumstances involved. By way of illustration, I received a call from the president of a small shul complaining that the newly hired young rabbi was being overly stringent and oppressive by disallowing social dancing at shul events. The president recalled that many decades earlier, the cathedral synagogue he had attended as a teenager had hosted dances without any objection from the shul rabbi. The president noted that the synagogue’s rabbi at that time is now a highly regarded and extremely pious elderly rosh yeshivah. Recently I spotted that particular rosh yeshivah at a wedding. I introduced myself and we sat together and chatted. After a bit, I inquired, and he affirmed that decades earlier he had been the rabbi of the referenced cathedral synagogue. I gingerly inquired whether there had been social dancing at synagogue events during his tenure and if so, why he had allowed it.

The rabbi, mildly amused, placed his hand on mine and whispered, “Not a single member of that shul observed Shabbos or kept a kosher home. Protesting ballroom dancing was not high up on my list of battles to wage.”

The fervent pursuit of halachic leniencies results in something else as well: the undermining of a foundational objective of Torah observance. Rather than a dispassionate exercise in checking off boxes on a halachic playlist, Torah observance is intended to be a meaningful and purposeful lifestyle that enriches our souls and elevates our lives. Each mitzvah, whether exhilarating or exhausting, sweet or strenuous, is an opportunity to uplift our neshamah and advance an ever-deepening connection with Hashem. The relationship we seek to develop with Hashem draws parallels to our other loving relationships. Any relationship is doomed to dissatisfaction, if not abject failure, if either of the parties perpetually seeks shortcuts, prioritizing personal convenience and gratification. And a relationship inevitably becomes stale if efforts undertaken on the other’s behalf are regularly performed to the minimal degree necessary “tzu yotzei zein,” which is the Yiddish equivalent of “checking the box.”

Spiritual Sub-optimality in History
While the challenge in avoiding the adoption of suboptimal halachic observance is tangible and pragmatic, our more profound challenge is acknowledging and confronting the very suboptimal nature and circumstance of our relationship with G-d. In fact, all of spiritual history is dominated by the suboptimal.

Spiritual imperfection began as early as the days of Creation. Mankind was to dwell in the nirvana of Gan Eden, but that design was quashed upon Adam and Chavah sinning by eating the fruit of the Eitz Hada’as, the Tree of Knowledge. Humanity’s subsequent journey has been dominated by the aspiration to remedy the spiritual imperfections and return to Gan Eden. After the exodus from Egyptian slavery and the miraculous splitting of the Yam Suf, the Jewish people arrived at Mount Sinai. In an unparalleled spiritual apogee, each Jew personally heard Hashem audibly communicate the first two of the Ten Commandments, with the subsequent eight Commandments conveyed by Hashem through Moshe Rabbeinu. The majesty and spectacle of Mount Sinai represented the emergence of the Jewish People as a nation, infused with the mission of advancing the universal recognition and service of G-d. Alas, these spiritual heights were promptly abrogated by the sin of the Golden Calf. Our nation’s subsequent journey has thus been dominated by the aspiration to eradicate the imperfections and return to the intimate relationship with Hashem experienced at Mount Sinai. In the Holy Land during the subsequent centuries, the Jewish nation experienced both triumph and ruination, piety and sacrilege. But though far distant from the spiritual summit of Sinai, the nation did merit prophets and kings, and a sacred relationship of gilui Shechinah.

Alas, deficiencies continued to mount, and this magnificent state of spirituality was also forfeited by our iniquities. The destruction of Bayis Rishon ushered in our current suboptimal relationship with Hashem of hester Panim (hidden Divine Presence). The subsequent millennia have continued to be dominated by our aspiration to surmount the imperfections and welcome the lofty relationship with Hashem that will accompany the arrival of Mashiach.

So what should be our attitude regarding our inherently suboptimal state of spirituality? Should it be a perpetual source of shame and frustration, or a challenge to be embraced and celebrated? Should we be focused on reversing the declines of history, pining to return to an era of gilui Shechinah, to the intimacy of Har Sinai, or even to the nirvana of Gan Eden? Or is our charge to recognize our current circumstances as Hashem’s design—and thus necessarily the optimum for us? Are we to dolefully try to make the best of a rather disagreeable situation, or view the religious opportunities we currently enjoy as the new ideal?

The Proper Reaction to Our Less-Than-Optimal Conditions
Close to twenty years ago, a friend arranged for me to meet with the esteemed late rosh yeshivah and dayan Rabbi Shlomo Fischer, zt”l (1932–2021). Sitting in the sefarim-lined dining room of Rabbi Fischer’s Jerusalem apartment, I sought guidance on how to rectify a flawed, yet prevalent, communal practice. The Rav discounted my concern, waving his hand in a sweeping motion, while remarking that everything is bedieved. I bewilderingly followed the hand motion, not comprehending what Rabbi Fischer was pointing to. My friend whispered, “Rabbi Fischer is pointing to the sefarim. They are writings that are all supposed to be Torah Shebe’al Peh [Oral Torah, which was meant to remain oral but due to historical circumstances was compelled to be written down].” Rabbi Fischer was conveying that circumstances of history have compelled a suboptimal relationship with Hashem, and this is a reality we must confront if we are to pursue avodas Hashem appropriately.

But accepting our realities does not mean that we ignore the imperfections. Perhaps there are three sequential steps we might take to properly address our current less-than-ideal spiritual reality: identifying what the ideal would be, yearning for that ideal, and recognizing that there are currently sparks of the ideal in the avodas Hashem that we can still fully pursue.

The first step in assessing how to adjust to an imperfect situation, whether in the mundane or religious, is to identify what optimal would look like. Consequently, the first step in considering how to best grow religiously in our suboptimal state of hester Panim is to identify the lechatchila state of gilui Shechinah that we once enjoyed. By conceptualizing what the ideal state of Judaism would look like, we are better equipped to identify the religious direction to pursue and thereby the best path to religious growth, despite our suboptimal circumstances.

The second step is to yearn for the more sublime state of spirituality that was lost. While it is only natural to acclimate to new realities, the alluring peril is embracing our mundane comforts and indulgences, and our current manner of relating to G-d, as the ideal. We must remind ourselves of the vistas of holiness that have been lost and recapture the yearning of the lamenters on the riverbanks of Babylonia. By weeping over the loss of Zion, we avoid allowing the current spiritual mediocrity to diminish our hope and confidence in returning to an era of gilui Shechinah. The duty to long for a return to the elevated spiritual state of the past is perhaps most dramatically conveyed in the Talmud (Shabbos 31a), which delineates the handful of questions posed to the departed Jew arriving before the Heavenly Tribunal. After being asked whether he had been honest in his financial affairs, whether he had designated time for Torah study, and whether he had tried to build a family, he is asked: “Tzipisa liyeshuah? Did you yearn for the period of spiritual redemption?”

Finally, we must identify and perhaps place extra emphasis on those aspects of avodas Hashem that remain pristine and unaffected by the ravages of history. In his commentary on Shir Hashirim (6:4), the Vilna Gaon (1720–1797) provides guidance. He observes that of the three pillars upon which the world rests (Avos 1:2), both Torah study and avodah (which is now prayer in place of animal sacrifices in the Temple) are not identical to their practice during the period of the first Beis Hamikdash and earlier. By contrast, however, the third pillar, gemilus chasadim, notes the Vilna Gaon, has always remained a service of Hashem in its original, unaltered state.

The Gaon concludes by citing a teaching of the Tanna Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai recorded in Avos D’Rabi Nosson (4:5). Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai taught that service in the Beis Hamikdash had been the most powerful source of forgiveness for the Jewish people. In the absence of the Beis Hamikdash following its destruction, Hashem left us with a replacement—the pillar of chesed, which remains an unaffected and unaltered service of Hashem. Today, despite the suboptimal absence of the Beis Hamikdash, we can continue to rely upon Hashem’s forgiveness by properly embracing and conducting a life, individually and communally, filled with benevolence and care.


Moishe Bane, president emeritus of the OU, serves as a contributing editor of Jewish Action.

This article was featured in the Fall 2023 issue of Jewish Action.
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