“…You bring the stolen, the lame, and the sick; and you offer it as a sacrifice. ‘Will I accept it from you?’ says the Lord.”
It is hard to define excellence. We all want to be outstanding and exceptional at what we do, but there are not always metrics to measure this. For example, I may want to be the best wife, mother, friend, volunteer, or employee - but who is to judge? I always find Mother’s and Father’s Day presents that say “World’s Best Mom or Dad” amusing since companies produce thousands of t-shirts, buttons and cards at a time. We can’t all be the best, but we can all buy the shirts.
Obviously, the measure of excellence in some arenas must be determined within. We know when we are giving the best of ourselves and when we are merely coasting or going through the motions. The Ishbitzer Rebbe, Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1801-1854), made this observation on the rejection of Cain’s gift in Genesis 4. Cain gave the first sacrifice. It was easy for Abel to one-up him. Why did God reject both Cain and his gift? Because, the Ishbitzer says, he gave the least of himself. Abel brought the first of his flock. Cain brought the last of his harvest.
In the spirit of gifts, today’s daily page of Talmud opens with a discussion of sacrifices. You can offer a blemished sacrifice as a gift to the Temple that has monetary value for the Temple’s maintenance but not as an actual sacrifice. When you sacrifice something, you have to give the best of yourself, not something blemished. We know that this was not always the case because in the very last book within Prophets, we find an exhortation against the people and the priests. They were bringing and allowing blemished sacrifices to be offered on the holy altar.
The giver brings something stolen or lame or sick as a gift. God asks rhetorically, “Is this truly a gift?” If I buy you a present, and it is broken, would you want it? Earlier in the chapter, God observes that people would bring sacrifices, treat them with scorn and say “What a bother.” At this point, God asks that the doors to the Temple be closed altogether because the sincere desire to bring the best of oneself was compromised. In a universe of mediocrity, it is best to just shut down and move on because mediocrity is usually self-perpetuating.
The problem in this text is that not only are people acting in a mediocre fashion and giving mediocre gifts, they believe that they are doing nothing wrong. Perhaps they believe that it is the thought that counts. What they fail to realize is that mediocrity and excellence are judged by results rather than by effort.
As we near the High Holiday season, we should pause and reflect on who we are and how to be more excellent at what we do. I have been thinking a lot about excellence recently and offer three quotes for your consideration. Which quote most resonates with you?
· “If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have the time to do it over?” ― John Wooden
· “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” ― Vince Lombardi Jr.
· “We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life.” ― Steve Jobs
These quotes move from instrumental – doing something well the first time saves time – to the aspirational – setting a high standard will push us harder – to the inspirational – we have one life. Let’s get it right.
What drives you to excellence? What does it mean to be spiritually excellent?