Rabbi Sessler D’Var Torah


The Gift of Failure 

Every book of the Torah deals with a central issue of the human condition. Genesis is about “family and its discontents.” From Isaac and Ishmael to Jacob and Esau and Joseph and his brothers, sibling rivalry in particular, and familial disputations in general, constitute a chief leitmotif in the opening book of the Pentateuch. The book ends with familial reconciliation, once Joseph pardons his brothers in Egypt.

We then move on to what we call in political science “Nation-Building”, with the book of Exodus. Exodus is the “Book of Freedom”. Its first part narrates the path to political freedom, and its second part highlights and delineates the existential imperative of harnessing our political freedom into spiritual liberty, namely – making a home for the Divine presence to dwell within us, precisely here within the confinements and challenges of the material world.

Leviticus, the third book of the Torah is the “Book of Sanctity.” In it we find the holiness code in Judaism, not only for the Kohanim, but also, especially in parashat Kedoshim, the ethical and spiritual code of Judaism writ large.

The final book of the Torah is the “Book of Legacy.” Deuteronomy is a series of speeches which Moses delivered in the weeks preceding his death. Narrated in the first person, this book contains vision and directives that Jews are to follow for perpetuity, both collectively and individually.

The book that we are currently reading in the Torah, the book of Numbers, is what I call the “Book of failure.” “Everybody” fails in this book, especially the big shots, the greatest movers and shakers. And they all fail miserably and colossally.

Miriam and Aaron speak ill of their brother Moses, and suffer consequences. Korach, a highly prominent and affluent man, who was also Moses’s cousin, launches a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. He failed too. Ten of the spies who returned from Israel also failed, by issuing a defeatist and negative report. And in this week’s Torah portion, it is Moses himself who fails by hitting the rock, rather than addressing it.

We all fail. This is why one of the leading thinkers of modern times, Immanuel Kant, rendered humanity analogous to a “crooked timber.”

What Kant meant by that, is that human character is akin to a warped piece of wood. We labor hard to straighten it all out, but it will never be completely and utterly perfectly symmetrical, harmonious and straight. In the words of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes: “There is no man walking the earth who is perfectly righteous, and who only does good, and never sins.”

So if we all fail, what’s the purpose of it all? Firstly, the purpose is to grow in soul and to improve. Much of life is about “A for effort.”

Secondly, failure can often be a concealed gift, which the Almighty has given us. Failure can be like a tall wave in the ocean, which overwhelms us initially, but if we learn how to surf it, then it could ultimately, in the long run, actually lead us to our destination in an expedited and loftier way.

The first verb in the Shulchan Aruch, Judaism’s seminal halachic code, is “Yitgaber”, which means “Shall overcome.” And in the morning service, one of the first blessings we articulate is “Hamechin mitz’adey gaver”, which alludes to G-d as the one “Who prepares the footsteps of those who overcome.” Failure is an invitation for spiritual and existential auditing. A successful auditing would include the following set of introspective question:

What went wrong? What is it that I said or did, which brought about these undesired results? Who can help me learn from this, so that I can do better in the future? How do I harness this failure as a catalyst for change in how I conduct myself in the future?

Failure is an opportunity. Capitalize on it, and grab it by the horns. It is indeed, a concealed gift. But it is up to you to choose to see it that way, and then also put in the required work. This is what contemporary psychologists call “positive thinking”, and much of Kabbalistic psychology is all about that.

I leave you today with the timeless and wise words of the 20th century’s greatest political orator and statesman, Sir Winston Churchill, whose apt words loom large in this context: “Success is not final, and failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Sessler

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