An unmistakable focal point of the Day of Atonement, is the intricate, detailed, and somewhat spooky-sounding sacrificial procedure that was carried out every Yom Kippur back in the day. Aside from its obvious role of in effecting atonement that it had for the Jews of old, this procedure certainly teaches numerous lessons. The forest-from-the-trees lesson that jumps out at me this year, though, is the exacting, unforgiving perfectionism that the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) is required to uphold to as he executes all the procedure’s many stages. He has to keep changing uniforms, immerse in a mikvah at multiple points in the day, and fulfill a list of intricate and technical manipulations – all flawlessly. Perfection, in this case and situation, is not only a virtue but an absolute necessity.
It seems that perfectionism, because of its tendency to hamper and interfere with quantity of output, is generally seen as a flaw. The same trait can, however, be described with a positive connotation: attention to detail. When does attention to detail deteriorate into perfectionism; when does this virtue lapse into becoming a vice?
The Cohen Gadol’s job on Yom Kippur, I believe, can help us form a rule that will clarify how to approach this character trait. His performance in the Beit Hamikdash (the Ancient Temple) on that day needs to be so exacting because he is accomplishing something so important.
When the entire nation’s atonement and the repair of its relationship with God is at stake, there can be no mistakes. The barometer of healthy perfectionism is, then, when that perfectionism is utilized for an important task. In that case, attention to detail is fantastic. Applying perfectionism to an unimportant task, however, is one way to cross the line into the unhealthy variety of the trait. It is particularly pernicious when it is used as a kind of coping mechanism to deal with some type of personal insecurity.
You don’t have to be a High Priest to accrue dividends from attention to detail. We can and should apply some healthy perfectionism to important parts of our own lives. Why not improve our relationships with our family and co-workers, our intellectual and spiritual growth, and the way we raise and educate the next generation with more attention to detail? In my mind, this is an outstanding part of the legacy of technological innovator and cultural icon Steve Jobs. He was radically obsessive about his attention to detail about every curve, color, and wording used in all the Apple Inc. devices, stores, product-release presentations, and who knows what else. (See here for more info.) In a mere decade, he was able to rocket apple into becoming the most valuable technology company in the world. Why can’t we apply this lesson to make ourselves more effective spouses, citizens, parents, and Jews?
Yes, perfectionism can certainly be harmful and stifle forward movement. One lesson of Yom Kippur is that when we identify our crucially important roles and areas of our lives, we can harness that perfectionism to strive for excellence and accomplish great things.