The Defect of Our Souls and Our Eyes All Alive

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, April 20, 2018 / 5 Iyar 5778

This Sunday’s Mishnah Berurah class will start at 9:30 am and conclude at 10:30 am sharp. Drop-ins are welcome.

Summary: Rabbi Kosak speaks personally of how our blemishes are often our best parts and what they can teach us about living better lives.

The Defect of Our Souls and Our Eyes All Alive
A Spiritual Journey Through Parshat Tazria Metzora

It’s a misleading title, “The Defect of Our Souls.” As though we each have only one! Still, I think our defects can teach us remarkable things. In many ways, they can be our guides.

The Jewish tradition has a term for such shortcomings. A p’gam is a defect or blemish, while something that is pagum is defective. For example, in the Jewish legal tradition, a kos pagum is a defective cup. It refers to a glass of wine or juice from which someone has already drunk. As a consequence, that juice is no longer suitable for making kiddush over. Kiddush, or our sanctification of Shabbat by means of wine, should occur over something special. The idea of using “sloppy seconds” doesn’t feel all that special.

There’s another way the term appears, though, and that is as a p’gam mishpacha. This is a “family blemish” and it refers to matters that might embarrass or diminish a family’s reputation. When we think about how our souls carry certain p’gamim, it is that latter sense we mean.

When I reflect on a personal p’gam, my mind goes to my singing voice. Early on, people I cared about told me that I could not sing. I, of course, believed them. That’s a good reminder to adults that our careless words carry tremendous weight, and that our children look to us and believe our assessments. Even in the teen years when it seems like they’ve stopped paying attention, don’t believe it. They are listening.

The thing with a p’gam is that it’s a bit like a scab. It’s that hardened bit of injury that sticks around even after the injury is gone. Chances are we can all still hear a parent’s voice telling us not to pick at our scabs, but to let them heal naturally. Turns out, however, that this was bad advice. Wounds heal better with proper attention. Keeping many types of wounds moist and protected will actually speed recovery.

That’s also the best course with our spiritual p’gamim. Timely and proper attention ensure that our psychic injuries don’t harden into place. Too often, though, the initial pain that caused our injuries have us turn away from properly addressing them. This avoidance tends to make things worse, not better.

That’s what happened to me. As a consequence, I stopped singing for a long time, and let that early injury grow thicker and more recalcitrant to recuperation. My avoidance made my singing worse, not better. In rabbinical school, we had a mentor who coached us and then checked us off for our davenning skills as a required component of receiving ordination. Well, I got checked off, but my mentor at one point looked at me and said, “and you, David, should only work somewhere with a cantor!”

Here’s the deep question, though. Once that spiritual scab is already there, what’s the best course of action? Lots of us turn our attention to other matters. There’s a lot to recommend that we focus on our strengths rather than dwell on our faults and in many cases that would be the best advice.

Sometimes though, a different tack is better. There’s this school of thought that argues how our p’gamim are meant to be our guides. The Slonimer Rebbe (1911-2000), author of the Netivot Shalom, makes the case that our entire mission on this planet is to focus on our most broken aspect and to lift it up. For the Slonimer, our defects are actually God-given. They therefore should not only be avoided, but actively embraced as the gift they are.

A large part of the work I do on this planet occurs through my voice. That’s probably true for most of us. By voice, I mean all the ways that we give expression to our commitments, our personality, and also our yearning, our hopes, our fragility. They say eyes are the gates to the soul. Our voices are also, sometimes even more so. Now someone is ready to disagree with this because they imagine that some of us are born with a pleasant voice and others are not! Yet we have all seen cruel eyes that only became that way over time, just as there is a kindness in some eyes that only got there by plumbing the depths of our humanity. We develop our voices just as we develop our eyes. They are gateways to the soul, not the soul itself. As we deepen our eyes and refine our voices, our souls are changed in the process.

That brings us to last Shabbat–and the three plus years leading up to it. Back in Cleveland, I took up the Slonimer’s challenge and decided it was time to learn how to sing. For that, I owe an eternal debt to my voice teacher there, Leslie Varnick. More a therapist than vocal coach, it was under her tutelage that my kol pagum, my blemished singing voice, received treatment. My progress here in Portland under Becca Sturlbag has accelerated, precisely because the harder work of healing had been addressed. The goal has always been to make my davenning voice a true korban, a genuine offering before God. As we know, we can only offer up in religious service what is most valuable.

Yet as the Slonimer intimates, we never finish this task of facing and raising up our p’gamim. And so it was last Shabbat. Cantor Bitton had lost his voice–and thankfully it is now returning. But at the last moment on Friday,he asked me to lead services, and again on Saturday morning for the shacharit service for Serena Song’s bat mitzvah. A friend and congregant complimented my voice in public, yet I was unable to accept the compliment. I was still too focused on the broken parts–the stretches I sought and could not reach, the melodic lines where I got derailed, the areas where my vocal placement and air control were lacking, when I could have paid attention to the creativity I used to find a way through despite those limitations.

Cantor set me straight. If someone likes your singing, they like your singing. Plain and simple. There’s always another mountain peak, a new vocal discovery, abilities not yet developed. At the outset, none of us know what we are capable of. That’s as it should be.

And so it is with all of our deep psychic wounds. We can avoid them–sort of–but then our own lives remain diminished. Or we can face them square on and grow in ways we could never otherwise imagine. Every time we do so, we reclaim a part of our voice, of our humanity, of the deep work we each are asked to do here in the very short time we’ve each been given. And oh, but don’t our eyes come all alive then.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What is a major p’gam in your life? What’s its backstory–how did this blemish appear in your life and gain traction?
  2. Of the people you care most about, which of their p’gamim do you most appreciate? Put another way, through which of their blemishes are you drawn closer to them?
  3. What do you make of the Slonimer’s claim that our divinely-given mission is to be found in the most flawed aspect of ourselves? Do you agree or not? What are your reasons?

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