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I Did My Best

04/30/2020 01:10:27 PM


While teaching this week, I recalled a memory of a sub-par grade I got on a high school test. I studied the night before in preparation for the test and went into the test feeling confident that I’d do well. However, when I got my grades back, I clearly missed the mark. I complained to my dad that I was upset because I did the best I could do and still got a grade I wasn’t proud of. To which he inquired of me whether or not I truly believed it was the best I could have done. Could I have done more? Could I have found more time to learn and practice the material? Was there no other way I could have earned a better grade?

In Parshiyot Acharei Mot-Keddoshim, we read of the Yom Kippur rituals for expiating sin; the same reading we read on the holiday itself. As part of the ritual, the High Priest takes some incense to purify the sanctuary and burns it privately behind a curtain. From this, the sages of the Talmud learn that this ritual of incense burning is atonement for slander. Just as slander is done in secret, so too is the incense burned in secret to atone for it (Yoma 44a). Yet, despite the secretive nature of our slander, we are still held accountable for our actions. In fact, the Torah doesn’t just demand justice and holiness on our external observable actions, but also on our private activities and thoughts as well. Consequently, there is only one person who is best positioned to understand the true extent and intent behind our actions and thoughts, and that person is oneself. 

Each of us is at the helm of our own bodies, minds, and souls, and our tradition demands of us to live responsibly and to the best of our ability; not just externally for the sake of how others see us, but also internally for our own sake. Yet as the proverb goes, the human mind has the infinite capacity to delude itself. “I’m doing the best I can,” “I couldn’t see it going any other way!” But was it really our best? Truly, was there no other way to be better?  

Shabbat Shalom

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784