Albert Einstein was a brilliant theoretical physicist and mathematician, but that doesn’t deify his every pronouncement. His too-often repeated statement that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result” is refuted by the common wisdom, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”.
Although it was always pretty much a foregone conclusion that the recent Iran Capitulation Agreement will stand, many dedicated people, including some I tremendously respect, invested an enormous amount of time, money and energy trying to generate the support to defeat it. Were they wasting their time? Is “merely” rallying the troops worth the efforts? Was there ever a chance for success?
As Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur approach and we prepare to invest significant time, effort and emotion in prayer, don’t we all know from the start that we’ll sin over and over again in this new year? Our prayers and intentions for Tshuvah (mending our ways) are doomed to fail, so are we merely displaying symptoms of insanity?
I’ve been blessed to call many world-class musicians my friends. When I ask them if they’ve ever, even once, played a piece of music “perfectly”, everyone points out exactly where they missed an exact pitch, a precise moment, an aimed-for timbre of color. In all the years that I enjoyed a reputation as one of the premier black-and-white photo-printers, my eye would instantly travel to every point on a final print that I didn’t tickle into the “right” tonality.
Before the Shaliach Tzibur (prayer leader) chants Kol Nidre, perhaps the keystone to the entire Yom Kippur service, he proclaims in the name of both the heavenly and the earthly courts, אָֽנוּ מַתִּירִין לְהִתְפַּלֵּל עִם הָעֲבַרְיָנִים (Anu Matirim L’Hitpalel Im HaAvaryanim), “We are permitted (actually, we’re mandated) to pray with sinners”. This is not, as some current fads might interpret it, a declaration of inclusion. Rather, it’s a recognition that even with immense effort, each of us is, and once again will be, significantly less than perfect.
Are we thus wasting our many hours, attention span and patience in prayer? I’m not impressed with the apologetic that “we’d be even worse if we didn’t”. However, repeated, serious, sincere and strenuous effort, even if unsuccessful this time, is a necessary step in itself towards that ultimate outcome we all pray for: both ourselves and our world made whole, redeemed and, finally, existing at our full potentials. Rabbi Tarfon in Avot 2:17 (אבות ב:טז) famously teaches, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה (Lo Alecha MaMalacha Li’Gmar, V’lo Ata Ben Chorin LiBatel Mimena) “It’s not up to you to complete the work, but you are not free to do nothing”.
It is only through the continuous, combined, necessarily incomplete attempts and efforts of each and every one of us Avaryanim, sinners, both this year and in all coming years, that we will sufficiently refine ourselves and bring our world to its ultimate fullness.
Tizku l’Shanim Rabot, may we all earn an everlasting future. Shana Tova.