Yom Kippur: Thou Shall Never be Satisfied

Untitled (Perfect Lovers)   by Felix Gonzalez–Torres

Untitled (Perfect Lovers) by Felix Gonzalez–Torres


In 1991, Cuban–American artist Felix Gonzalez–Torres produced an installation of two identical, battery–operated, synchronized clocks called Untitled (Perfect Lovers). The piece consists of two mass-produced clocks placed adjacent to each other so that they were touching. They were usually hung about eight feet high, above a viewer's head, against the backdrop of a light blue wall. Initially, the clocks start at the same time and are set to the correct time – both meant to run continuously. But eventually, over time, they will drift apart – one clock going out of sync, falling behind the other.

In the article Art, Design, and Clocks, curator Kevin Buist writes, “In 2002, a mischievous young designer named Tobias Wong produced Perfect Lovers (Forever). It also consists of two mass-produced clocks. At first, it seems to be a direct copy of Gonzalez–Torres’s iconic piece, but the wry difference becomes clear over time. Wong’s clocks are outfitted with radio receivers that keep each clock synchronized with the U.S. Atomic Clock, ensuring they both stay accurate to within one second over a period of a million years.” Buist points out, “Untitled (Perfect Lovers) is such a beautiful and touching piece because Gonzalez–Torres creates a problem without giving the viewer the comfort of a solution. The two clocks, despite the fact that they seem to be a perfect pair, are flawed. They differ, they can never really be one. They will drift apart, they will disagree, they will measure and reflect the world in different ways. The fabric of their being ensures that eventually, they’ll end up in conflict.”

“Wong’s Perfect Lovers (Forever) does what design does, it provides a solution. But in doing this, Wong removes all the tragic beauty from the original. This conceptual twist has its own poetic power, however. By fixing Gonzalez–Torres’s ‘problem,’ Wong brings to light a new problem: the utopian ambitions of design itself. What if design’s ambition to fix the world has a dark side? When we fix a problem, what do we lose?”

When someone told me about this installation I was enthralled. Because one of the most excruciatingly difficult pieces of Yom Kippur is encountering this idea of being out-of-sync. Of feeling like somehow, there’s one clock that’s on time – the perfected embodiment of spiritual ideals, human-kindness, and morality – the perfect Jew – But we, in this analogy, are “The vessel that awaits mending once again,” as Rabbi Israel Zoberman puts it. Meaning, we are the clock that is off: Perpetually anxious, self-conscious, or even guilty of our drifting apart from the modeled exemplar.

But why do we feel this way about our disagreement, measuring and reflecting the world in different ways? As Gonzalez-Torres seems to demonstrate, “The fabric of [our] being ensures that eventually, we’ll end up in conflict.” And yet, we tend to understand this as a “problem” that needs fixing. More or less, relying on our utopian ambitions of designing ourselves in order to catch up – looking for the comfort of a solution. Fixing, molding, changing, and improving ourselves all to alleviate the distress of being out-of-sync.

Throughout our machzor, I don’t think once we’re really ever told, “Well, honestly, who you are is okay for the day. Be easy on yourself. Don't be so critical.” In fact, it’s pretty much ingrained in our prayer rhetoric that who you are at this very moment is indeed not okay. As our sages taught: “All created things require refining and improvement. The mustard seed needs to be sweetened; the lupine needs to be soaked; the wheat needs to be ground, and the human beings needs to be repaired.” [1] “The day is short and the work is much, and the workers are lazy and the reward is great, and the Master of the house is pressing. It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” Rabbi Tarfon says [2]

But why is that? How did we get to this point that Judaism is basically the Religion of Guilt – God’s coveted anxious Children of Israel. As if somehow Moses forgot to write down in the Decalogue the most pressing  eleventh commandment: “Thou shall never be satisfied.”

Jewish thought pays little attention to inner tranquility and peace of mind...In fact, the very concept of the Divine as infinite implies an activity that is endless, of which one must never grow weary...the Jewish approach to life considered the person who has stopped going–one who has a feeling of completion, of peace, of great light from above that has brought him or her to rest – to be someone who has lost the way.
— Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

And so, to answer Kevin Buist question: “When we fix a problem, what do we lose?” Judaism’s answer is that we don’t fix the problem. Because how do you fix a problem like Maria? In short, we are the problem. Or, at the very least, we’re not the solution. According to Steinsaltz,  if we not exhausting ourselves, attempting to solve this existential enigmatic crisis, we are straying from the “Jewish approach to life.”

And if you’re thinking, “Wow Rabbi, that’s not very uplifting,” all I can say is that Judaism is not a religion of perfunctory head nods and smiles. If you want calmness, breath, and self-love, I suggest yoga. Because we are a people of constant pursuance – of catching up to the clock next to us, and yet, purposefully designed to be out of sync – designed to be moving – but quite literally, never on time! In Genesis, we are told:

“The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. By the seventh day, God completed His work which He had done, and he abstained on the seventh day…” [3]

The Vilna Gaon explains that these two words, “Completed...abstained...have different connotations. The first indicates that God's work of Creation was finished, as indeed it was; nothing new was created after the first six days. The word abstained, however, suggests that the work was  – adjourned – but not ended. It tells human beings that there is always more to do.”

In a 6th-century Aggadic Midrashic collection by Rav Kahana, he writes:

Jacob had a dream
A ladder, set on the ground, with it’s top reaching the sky–
And angels of God were ascending and descending the ladder.
Our Sages taught:
The Holy One said, “Jacob you must climb, as well”
But Jacob was afraid, and he did not climb up.
We want to climb higher
But we’re tired and there’s so much to do.

And we don’t know how to rise
God of Becoming,
Whose name means “I will be What I will be,”
You are the Unfinished One,
Ever-unfolding, evolving with Your creation.
Made in Your image,
We too are fluid,
Ever-becoming who we will be.

Keep us alive to possibilities;
Show us a path to grow in mind, heart, and spirit;
Help us find the strength to ascend [4]

And so, what this subtle push from God to Jacob reveals, is the natural parallel between motivation and this feeling of unrest. Our lack of complacency is the driving force behind God’s perpetual unfolding of creation. As Jacob says to God, “You are the Unfinished One; evolving with Your creation. We too are fluid, Ever-becoming who we will be.” And thus, to be human – or for that matter, to be Jewish, is to always be climbing the ladder - never finished -  because there’s always more to do. And you might wonder, “Is it wrong that we are never fully satisfied? Is this desire to pursue, push forward - to ‘grow in mind, heart, and spirit’ a good thing?” Well, the Rabbis would say it’s not only good – it’s very good. At the end of Chapter 1 of Genesis, after the fifth day of creation, God creates Adam in God’s image. We are told:

“He blessed them and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply….And it was so. And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” [5]

The Vilna Gaon explains, “The Torah declares that Creation in its entirety was not only good, as the individual components were described above, but it was very good….Even things that seem to be evil – appear to be so only when viewed in isolation, but in the total context of existence, they can be seen as good, even very good”

Rabbi Nahman asks a valid question concerning this statement of good and evil: “Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, [Nahman explains], no man would build a house, take a wife and father children; and thus said Solomon: 'I have also noted that all labor and skillful enterprise come from [human-kind’s] envy. [Their rivarly] of each other…’ (Ecclesiastes 4:4) [6]

It could be said, without this Evil Desire, the same place where jealousy, envy, even rivalry manifests, we would resort to laziness and indifference. Meaning, we feel behind, out-of-sync, or self-conscious or our achievements, because haughtiness and arrogance would lead us to stop trying – We would cease improving. Our hunger for more would simply dissipate. Smugness would satiate that part of us looking to get ahead - to push the limits of what we are told is possible - of what we believe is possible. As Rav Kahana would put it, we would be closed to new possibilities; oblivious to growth; too weak to ascend to greater heights. And this isn’t just in Judaism. It’s this way in all facets of life.

In the article The Upside of Rivalry: Higher Motivation, Better Performance, the author explains:

“A recent study from psychological scientist Gavin J. Kilduff of New York University found that not only do people report higher performance when competing against their rivals, but that rivalry actually improved race times for long-distance runners. As expected, people thinking about their rivals reported a bigger boost in their performance, feeling more evenly matched, and more motivated. To find out whether rivalry really does impact performance, Kilduff reviewed and analyzed six years of archival data from an amateur long-distance running club.”

“After crunching the numbers from 82 runners in 112 races, the results confirmed that the presence of a rival increased a runner’s speed by about 4.92 seconds per kilometer. Research demonstrating that competition can improve motivation dates back to 1898 when psychologist Norman Triplett discovered that a cyclist will ride faster when there is another cyclist present.”

“Unlike other competitions rivalry occurs between people who already know each other and who take their history of past interactions into account in competition. For rivals, the psychological stakes are more important than any prizes or titles. Take the rivalry between Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. They have held exhibition matches for charity in recent years, and despite the fact that both players have long been retired and that the outcomes of these matches carry no financial stakes, they are fiercely competitive with each other, says Kilduff.”

But with all of this said, coming to terms with one’s own abilities is equally a challenge for many of us. In a world of constant competition and conflict, the side-by-side evaluations of everything from grades, body-types, houses, cars, families, and occupations, even devoutness, can often leave us feeling deficient. As if what we have worked for and achieved is only meager by comparison. And truth be told, it’ll never be enough. While steady advancement certainly is the Jewish course of action, competition is not what we are ultimately judged on. While helpful, we are really here today to judge ourselves - not by the merits of others, but by who we were last year - and the year before that. We are here as a litmus test to ensure that we living our best lives. To ensure that we are improving given the unique ways we measure and reflect the world.

There is a story told about Zusya, a Chassidic teacher who was dying, and he was weeping:

“‘Why are you crying, Rebbe?’ His disciples asked.
‘I’m crying because after I die, I am going to face my day of judgment,’ he sobbed.
‘But Rebbe,’ his student protested, ‘You lived such a pure life! You couldn’t have been more like Moses himself!’
‘Don't you see?’ Reb Zusya responded. ‘When I stand before that heavenly court, they’re not going to ask me why I wasn’t more like Moses! They’re going to ask me why I wasn’t more like Zusya!’”

Buried beneath the waves of introspection and recitations of Al Chet’s, Avinu Malkeinu’s, and Ashamanu’s, be sure to check in with yourself. Yes, you have fallen behind. But so have we all. Yes, you have drifted away from the countless goals you’ve set for yourself, but so has everybody else. So before you try to speed up the clock to catch up with your colleagues, neighbors, friends, or rivals, please remember to be thankful for the time you’ve had thus far. Give yourself credit for where you are right now and how far you’ve come – even if our Machzor doesn’t say it.

As Abba Kovner’s (1918-1987) poem Like an Accountant, says:

Self-examination. Turning the pages.
Over and over
Morning and evening
Sometimes in the middle of the night
Like an anxious accountant
But not very strong,
Neither at spiritual
Accounting nor any other
Kind. He tries to distinguish
Between credit
And debit
By page
But in the last analysis,
What does it matter!
Life-if he could,
What he would like to tell you is this:
Life is what is left of it
Is hard to give up
Even now.

[1] Based on Midrash Tanchuma, Tazria 5 and Midrash Geneis Rabbah 11:6
[2] Pirkei Avot 2:15–16
[3] Genesis 2:1
[4] P’sikta d’Rav Kahana 23:2
[5] Genesis 1:28-31
[6] Bereishit Rabbah 9:7

Aaron Sataloff