Meet Mr. Pentakaka, a character found in the pages of the Jerusalem Talmud. He was a brothel owner, hardly a virtuous line of work. He was cynical, self-serving, insensitive and indifferent to the needs of his fellow human beings. The origin his name is “man of five sins” because his sins are considered so great that he is beyond redemption. One day, a poor woman came to the brothel desperately in need of money because her husband had been kidnapped and was being held for ransom. She begged to be taken into the brothel so she could earn the necessary funds to redeem her husband. Rather than accept her offer, Pentakaka instead reached into his pocket and gave the woman the amount of money she needed to buy her husband’s freedom. For this single righteous act, the Talmud tells us, Pentakaka was rewarded with a share in the world to come, the highest reward possible by the reckoning of the Talmudic Rabbis.
Why did Pentakaka receive such a great reward for only a single pious act? One commentary suggests that the reason is that his behavior amounts to a repudiation of perfection, in his case perfect evil. Apparently, the Talmudic sages wanted to convey that human beings should never aspire to perfection, whether perfect good or perfect evil. Perfection lies within the realm of the Divine, not humans. We were created to be imperfect, always striving to improve. We should have no allusions that we can ever complete the work of improving the condition of our lives.
This week, we observe “Shabbat Parah,” a reminder that Passover is about a month away. The origin of this special Shabbat, one of four observed in the week prior to Pesach, is the Torah’s commandment to the Israelites to purify themselves prior to bringing the Passover offering. The “Korban Pesach” was among the most important sacrifices that could be offered and the Torah requires that the person who makes the offering be in a state of ritual purity. The purification ritual involved the sacrifice of a pure red heifer, an animal that could not have a single blemish or even two white hairs on its body. The passage that contains this commandment (Numbers 19:1-22, read from a second scroll this Shabbat morning) refers to the “parah adumah,” Hebrew for red heifer. The reminder to engage in the purification ritual was made a month before the holiday to give people sufficient time to prepare.
Some suggest that the red heifer represents perfection and the commandment to offer this sacrifice represents the sacrifice of perfection. By commanding that a pure red heifer be sacrificed, we are coached to offer as a sacrifice the striving for perfection in our lives.
Too often, we seek perfection in ourselves, in our family members and in those we love and care for. We expect perfect academic performance from students, perfect performance in business by colleagues, perfect performances by athletes and politicians. We aspire toward the perfect body, the perfect relationship. But the striving for perfection of any type can prevent us from seeing the good in people and things.
Mr. Pentakaka, the man who earned eternal redemption by rejecting perfection, teaches us that human beings are potentially good but not perfect, and that is nothing to regret or be ashamed of. Each of us is a work in progress. On our journey in life, we should seek to grow stronger and better, but give up the idea that such a quest ever is finished, for it truly can never be.
Note: This Shabbat, Oheb Shalom welcomes Amir Sagie, Deputy Consul General of the Israel Consulate in New York. Mr. Sagie is an expert on BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction), a worldwide movement to harm Israel. After the service, he will speak to us about what the State of Israel is doing to combat the BDS movement and what we as individuals can do to combat it as well. I STRONGLY URGE YOU TO BE WITH US THIS SHABBAT MORNING TO SHARE IN OUR SERVICE AND LISTEN TO OUR GUEST SPEAKER. The presentation, the third in a series, is sponsored by the Israel Action Committee.