Be Perfect On Earth and in Heaven

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless.”

Genesis 17:1 (JPS Tanakh)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-48 (ESV)

Another translation of “be blameless” from Genesis 17:1 is “be perfect,” such as we see the Master instructing his students (including us) in Matthew 5:48. But how is this possible, especially when Paul wrote:

…as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one…

Romans 3:10 (ESV)

What does it mean to “be perfect?” I used to think this was one of the great mysteries of the Bible, but perhaps there is an answer after all.

If a human being cannot be perfect, why did God demand perfection of Abraham?

The entire context of the verse indicates both the definition of this perfection and the way in which it can be achieved. It is obvious that no human being can aspire to equal God’s degree of perfection. What man can achieve is to live according to God’s teachings and thereby live up to his own human potential; more than man’s personal maximum is not possible or expected. Thus, God did not say simply, “Be perfect”; He said, “Walk before Me and thereby you will be perfect.” When a person tries to live according to the Divine teachings, that constitutes human perfection, although one is technically never perfect.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the Hebrew word for “walk” in the above verse is not telech but heshalech which implies, “Go your way in spite of opposition, not making your progress dependent on external circumstances, but being led from within yourself: Let your movement proceed from your own free-willed decisions.”

The picture is now complete; human perfection can be achieved by making a free-willed choice to live according to the Divine teaching.

Today I shall…

try to realize that although I cannot be absolutely without flaw, I can be perfect if I make free-will decisions to obey the Divine will.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Cheshvan 6”

We all make choices. Every day, we make choices. Sure, some of those choices involve making mistakes, but we continue to strive, like Jacob, struggling with God and with our lives, to do better; to be better today than we were the day before. Of course, observant Jews and Christians have different ideas of what one must do to please God and to stand before the Throne of the Almighty as “perfect.” For Jews, it is an adherence to the mitzvot of the Torah, the study of Torah, and prayer. For Christians, prayer is a large component, as is Bible study, but most importantly, is the belief in the person and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. None of this makes us “perfect” people, but it does represent a journey that we each take upon ourselves, to seek God, even as He is also our traveling companion.

Somewhere in-between the doing and the experiencing of God is where we are supposed to be walking.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first rebbe of the Lubavitch dynasty, led the services for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. He stood wrapped in his prayer shawl, profoundly entranced in the cleaving of the soul to its source. Every word of prayer he uttered was fire. His melody and fervor carried the entire community off to the highest and the deepest journey of the spirit.

And then he stopped. He turned, cast off his prayer shawl and left the synagogue. With a bewildered congregation chasing behind, he walked briskly to the outskirts of town, to a small dark house from where was heard the cry of a newborn infant. The rabbi entered the house, chopped some wood and lit a fire in the oven, boiled some soup and cared for the mother and child who lay helpless in bed.

Then he returned to the synagogue and to the ecstasy of his prayer.

The Rebbe added:

Note that the rabbi removed his prayer shawl. To help someone, you must leave your world, no matter how serene, to enter the place where that person lives.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“A Story”
A favorite story of the Rebbe, central to his activist view of life
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Whether you’re Christian or Jewish (or anyone else), the actions of Rabbi Zalman are bound to seem strange, but if you are aware of the extreme solemn devotion and majesty of the Yom Kippur service, certainly the most Holy Day on the Jewish calendar, then imagining the Rabbi abruptly throwing off his tallit in the middle of services, walking out of the synagogue, even in order to care for a newborn infant and his mother, probably seems startling and even shocking.

But what is it to be perfect? Is it entering into an ecstatic holy state of prayer, speaking in tongues, or other mystical or metaphysical experience that brings us closer to the Divine, or is it extending ourselves back outward, away from what we think we want or need, in order to serve someone who has greater needs than ours?

I suppose you could make the argument that it’s both, since after Rabbi Zalman finished his work at the new mother’s home, “he returned to the synagogue and to the ecstasy of his prayer.” On the other hand, he was willing to abandon, however temporarily, the “ecstasy of his prayer” in the middle of worship services on the Holiest day of the year, and perform a servile duty to the lowliest of God’s creatures in their helplessness. It would be as if a Christian Pastor, right in the middle of leading Easter services, were to suddenly stop, walk out of church, and perform the identical action for a new mother and her infant, then go back to church and pick up where he left off.

What would the parishioners think of what he did? Then again, what would God think?

Every person is a microcosm of the entire Creation. When a person brings harmony between his G‑dly soul and his material life, he brings harmony between the whole of heaven and earth.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

What is it to be perfect? That’s not an easy question to answer. And yet we see that a significant portion of the answer is to strive to obey God and to bring harmony between our “G-dly soul” and our “material life.” The challenge is to find the balance between the two and to continually struggle to not let one overwhelm the other. We cannot serve Him in the material world without being attached to Him as He is in Heaven. But our service to Him in Heaven, so to speak, serves no one unless it is expressed here on Earth.

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:9-10 (ESV)

2 thoughts on “Be Perfect On Earth and in Heaven”

  1. James,
    I really, really needed this post today. Sent it to my husband and daughters. The story about Rabbi Schneur Zalman was wonderful. Thank you for writing. You are indeed a benefit to the body.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.