Nedarim 3 – Of Perfection and Perfectionism  


yehoshua-bermanBy Rabbi Yehoshua Berman

The maskana is that there is no set formula.  Sometimes the Tanna may start off explaining the last point mentioned in a list, and sometimes he may start off by explaining the first point on the list.  That is why we sometimes find it one way, and sometimes the other way.

But why didn’t the Tanna choose on one approach, and keep things uniform throughout shisha sidrei Mishna?  That’s the question that the Ran is apparently bothered by.  The answer he gives is that the Tanna deliberately switches back and forth from one style to the other specifically in order to demonstrate that there is no reason to stick with one approach over the other.  In general, there exists a concept that indicative of wisdom is that one speaks and writes in a concise, organized manner.  As the pasuk says, “and you should choose the language of the clever ones.”  However, regarding this matter – whether to begin explaining the last item mentioned or the first item mentioned – there is no one right way.

So now we should ask our own question, right?  Why in fact is this stylistic matter not determined by “choose the language of the clever ones”?  Why should it be an exception to the rule?

Of course, what seems to be the most straightforward explanation to that query is that the concept “choose the language of the clever ones” is insofar as one manner of communication carries an advantage over another.  It is clearer, more concise, etc.  However, there really is no advantage to beginning with the last point mentioned over the first point mentioned or vice versa.

But that itself should give us pause to reflect.  Most questions of what is the best mode of conduct or style have a definitive answer, and are not left to an arbitrary coin-toss of “whatever you feel like right now”.  Hashem created a world with precision.  A world in which it is almost always possible to unequivocally clarify and determine what is the most beneficial, desirable, and efficacious way of going about a particular task.  And yet, we see from this comment of the Ran (and other sources as well, but we’ll leave that for a different time), that some things were in fact left to “whatever you want”.

I’m sure that much could be said about this observation, but the one that stands out most to me is what this implies about perfectionism.  To be perfectly honest, perfectionism definitely carries a bunch of plusses.  There really is nothing like a job well done by someone who takes the time and puts in the effort to get every last dotting of the i and crossing of the t correct and precise.  However, and we all know this to be true, it can easily get out of hand.  If perfectionism becomes such an obsession to the point that anything less than absolute 100% perfection is worthless, that can wind up backfiring in a big way.  Instead of becoming a force for tremendous productivity, it can wind up becoming its owner’s greatest saboteur.

Of course, there are things that do demand 100%.  When you’re calculating how much you owe someone for a job, for example, even being off by the slightest margin can mean theft, plain and simple.  But not everything in life is like that, nor is it meant to be like that.

Much of life is best undertaken with a healthy sense of balance.  Striving for the best job possible on the one hand, while being realistic about what practically is feasible given the situation on the other.  Perhaps that is why Hashem built into the system, so to speak, the necessity of certain things being up to random, arbitrary whim.  What that effectively does is foster a sense of awareness that not everything needs to be painstakingly pushed to absolute perfection.  Sometimes it is ok to just “toss a coin” and decide on whichever way you happen to prefer right now.

As we said, it is about striking the right balance.  This is not necessarily something one will master right away.  It can take time until one develops the sense of things to really know when to be in fourth gear and when you can play it cool.  Of course, as almost everything in life, also built into the system is the fact that there are many successful people who have been at it – whatever it is you do – for a long time already, and by apprenticing yourself to them and carefully studying how they go about it, you can gain a world of knowledge and experience.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that you’re looking to become someone’s parrot.  Definitely not.  Real success is certainly intertwined with each individual discovering and implementing his or her particular modality; but learning from those who came before you can afford you a much expedited acquisition of the basic axioms upon which you can construct your unique approach.

So, are we aiming for perfection?  Yes; in the sense that we are always striving and working to do our best.  But maintaining the awareness that we are complex, dynamic beings – not stale, steel robots – and thus require a certain amount of breathing room for spontaneity and whim, is an integral ingredient to ensuring that our goal of perfection does not become a malady of perfectionism, but serves to motivate us in a healthy, productive manner.

Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel.  In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha.  Rabbi Berman can be contacted at

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