Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin, Psy. D.

Parshas Bereishis: The destructiveness of perfectionism

Aug 18, 2020 | Parsha, Bereishis

(בראשית ג:י) ויאמר מי הגיד לך כי ערום אתה המן העץ אשר צויתיך לבלתי אכל ממנו אכלת

Theגמרא in חולין (קלט:) asks: “הָמָן מן התורה מנין”? – Where is Haman alluded to in the Torah? Theגמרא answers: שנאמר (בראשית ג.יא) “‘הַמִן העץ’ אשר צויתיך לבלתי אכל ממנו אכלת” – Hashem asked אדם, Did you eat from the tree ((הַמִן העץ that I commanded you not to eat from?

Many have wondered what is the significance of this play of words – between two words that are spelled the same but are pronounced very differently and do not seem to share any meaning?

I saw a beautiful explanation from the famous Maggid of Yerushalayim, R’ Sholom Schwadron.[1]

When the גמרא asks for a source for Haman in the Torah it is trying to understand a strange phenomenon. Haman was the second most powerful person in the world with unlimited riches, power and glory. Yet when one lone person (Mordechai) refused to bow down to him, Haman exclaimed: (אסתר ה.יג): “וכל זה איננו שוה לי”… – “All the glory I have is valueless as long as this one person refuses to bow to me!” If it isn’t perfect, it has no value! The גמרא wonders if there is a source in the Torah for this malady of perfectionism.

The גמרא answers that indeed we find a source – by אדם הראשון.[2] He was given many wonderful trees to enjoy in גן עדן – “כל עץ נחמד למאכל וטוב למראה” – and he even had the “עץ החיים” at his disposal. There was only one tree that was prohibited to him – the עץ הדעת. Yet he דוקא wanted to eat from the forbidden tree! Why? Because it’s the job of theיצר הרע to make people feel that everything they have is valueless. It is only what they don’t have yet – and especially that which is forbidden to them (i.e., that which they feel they’ll never be able to get), that has value and meaning.

The גמרא informs us that Haman’s inability to enjoy a less-than-perfect situation had its source in the חטא of אדם הראשון.

I would like to add a few words on the deleterious impact of perfectionism on contemporary talmidim.[3] Many bochurim, especially those who were exposed to excessive criticism during their formative years, find it almost impossible to be satisfied with their ruchnius (spiritual) accomplishments. The fact that they “could have done more” is a source of chronic and severe self-criticism and does not permit them to derive any pleasure or self-satisfaction from even significant (albeit less-than-perfect) achievements.

Many people mistakenly believe that feeling satisfied with one’s accomplishments will lead to doing less. Therefore, they assume that when chazal state that being שמח בחלקו (happy with one’s lot) is one of theמ”ח דברים שהתורה נקנית בהם (אבות ו:ו) (a prerequisite for acquiring Torah knowledge) that must only refer to גשמיות (temporal possessions). In regard to spiritual acquisitions, being happy with what one has already achieved is seen as a negative trait at best, or a fatal defect in one’s spiritual makeup at worst.

The truth is exactly the opposite. It is the feeling of accomplishment that motivates people to sustain their efforts. This truth is confirmed by the fact that most of the meforshim (e.g., the Gr”a. Rav Chaim Voloizhin, the Sfas Emes) who discuss this issue explain this Mishnah in Avos as also referring to being satisfied with one’s spiritual accomplishments!

The feeling of lack of satisfaction in one’s learning leads to anxiety and depression which, of course, makes learning even more difficult leading to more intense depression and so on, in a downward spiral.

The Lakewood Mashgiach, Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, makes it clear that being satisfied with one’s spiritual accomplishments does not have to conflict with aspirations for future growth. In fact, it serves as the catalyst for future growth.[4]

 

  1. הובא בגליון “פנימים ופרפראות נבחרים לפרשת השבוע” מהרב יוסף ברגר (תשע”א). 
  2. Needless to say, we are incapable of even beginning to comprehend the exalted levels of the early spiritual giants, such as אדם הראשון. We can only glean the lessons that apply to us, which חז”ל teach us based on their understanding of the Torah. 
  3. I elaborate on this issue in an article I published in the Journal of Psychology and Judaism, Vol. 23 (4), 1999, pp. 179-195 – “The Pursuit of Perfection: Vice or Virtue in Judaism?” A more recent version is available at www.DrSorotzkin.com. 
  4. בספר מתנת חיים (רבי מתתיהו סלומון, קנינים ח”א, עמ’ רלז’-רלט’): להיות “שמח בחלקו”… הכוונה הוא להיות שמח בכל השגה שמשיג, אף כשהוא שואף יותר… כי השמח בחלקו ואינו מתעצב על שלא השיג יותר, קונה לנפשו מנוחה ושמחה להמשיך הלאה בלימודו… [ראה גם במכתב מאליהו ח”ה עמ’ 264 ובאור החיים בראשית ג:א].