I don’t remember the date in September—even though, beginning on Labor Day, my son reminds me several times—but I have the Hebrew date imprinted in my memory. It is the 21st of Tishre, the seventh day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah.
We won’t light a yahrzeit candle or recite a prayer, despite that our personal practice tends toward traditional observance of rituals. Perhaps because we are more traditional it seems inappropriate to memorialize a family pet in the same way one would a human. Still, I wish to honor her memory, so I create a technological memorial.
I change my Facebook profile picture to one of her lounging in the sukkah, just days before her death, and friends comment to comfort me with their memories of her life. I tweet a link to what could be called her obituary, a blog post about our ten years together. I feel a twinge of guilt—thinking these small acts of remembrance are somehow disloyal to our new dog—and resolve to post some photos of her after the holiday.
Discussing these newly-created rituals, my spouse asks, “Do you think animals have souls?”
I reply “yes” without hesitation. Not because I am one of those “dog people” (I am) or because I am a pantheist (I’m not), but because I believe it, feel it, deep in my soul. I spend several days formulating a well-reasoned reply. Something to extend the discussion beyond, “of course animals have souls; humans are animals, after all.” If the soul is the essence of life, the very thing that distinguishes sentient beings from inanimate objects, then humans are different from other animals not because we possess souls but because we have language with which we acknowledge God the Creator of souls.
While I’m remembering, my thoughts turn to Hoshana Rabbah, a strange interruption of the joy of the Sukkot season. During the morning prayers, the liturgical tradition is to return to the haunting melody of Yom Kippur because—while the book of life is sealed and the gates of repentance are closed at the end of Yom Kippur—the rabbis allowed for the possibility that during Sukkot we could nudge God toward granting forgiveness. Hoshana Rabbah is an extended deadline for atonement; some Jews symbolically cast off their sins by beating the willow branch until its leaves fall away.
Last year when I beat the willow branch, I was picturing Jenna waking up on the final day of her life and praying for the return of her soul to its creator. Tomorrow, when I participate in this ancient ritual, I will acknowledge our creator and engage my soul in remembering Jenna.
Yom Kippur is an exhausting day. By the end of the day, we’re tired, we’re hungry, and we’re just ready to be done. But traditionally, even if you’re exhausted, there’s a mitzvah to fulfill the next day: on the day after Yom Kippur, you’re supposed to build your sukkah.
What’s fascinating is that the day after Yom Kippur was also seen as the first day of building for the two most important structures in Jewish history—the mishkan (home for the Ark of the Covenant), and the First Temple in Jerusalem.
And these three structures—a sukkah, the mishkan, and the Temple—reflect three different levels of permanence.
The ancient Temple in Jerusalem was awe-inducing. It was at the top of a mountain in Jerusalem, and for most people, it would take days or weeks to travel there. It was a mob scene, with thousands and thousands and thousands of people in one location. If you went there, you would have thought that it would last forever.
Except it didn’t. The Temple was destroyed. Twice. The permanence was an illusion.
In our lives, too, we often look for stability, because it gives us reassurance. But we also know that our lives can change in a flash. Whether it’s our health, our finances, or our relationships, even if we think things will be there forever, we know that the vagaries of life and chance have their say, too. So yes, when we find a sense of security it can be comforting, but we also know that we can’t rely on it – too many things can happen.
The mishkan, in contrast, was the ultimate in portability. It was intentionally designed to get dismantled and rebuilt at every spot along the Israelites’ wanderings. Its impermanence was its defining feature, and a reminder that God could live anywhere.
And because the Ark of the Covenant wasn’t rooted down in one place, it became more than just a physical home for God; it was a spiritual home, as well.
The Torah says that when the mishkan was finished, God proclaimed, “Let them build a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in their midst (b’tocham).” The Hebrew word “b’tocham” certainly means “in their midst,” but it also can mean “in them.” So it could read, “Let them build a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell inside the people’s hearts.”
It’s like the story of the young man who wanted to be a rabbi. He told his rabbi, “I have gone through the Torah over twenty times.” “Ah,” said the rabbi. “That’s wonderful. But how many times has the Torah been through you?”
Our greatest treasures are not the things we physically own, but the values that guide us. Remembering what we stand for, who we want to be, and how we want to live allows us to deal more easily with the ups and downs of life.
The sukkah lies in between the Temple and the mishkan in that it is “semi-permanent.” It comes up for a week, and then goes down. It has a roof, but you have to be able to see the sky. It has walls, but not four of them, ensuring that our tent is wide open.
So with its sense of semi-permanence, the sukkah reminds us that even though that nothing lasts forever, we still need to build. Why? Because Judaism strives to create more blessings and justice and peace, and those things don’t happen by accident. They happen when we ourselves create them.
Will we be guaranteed success? No. Will they last forever? No. But for as long as they remain, we embrace them, we celebrate them, and we work to make more of them.
As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote last week, “Shelter and beauty and life are fragile, and to be joyously cherished.”
In the end, we should build our lives the way we build our sukkah—remembering that we are not eternal, but that while we are here, we have opportunities and responsibilities to embrace while they are ours to have.
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There’s an old joke about a rabbi, a priest, and a minister. The three leaders are speaking on a panel at a conference and are all asked the same question: “What would you like people to say about you after you die?” The priest answers first and says he hopes people will talk about how he was able to shepherd his flock and help them understand the love that God has for them as Catholics. The minister then says that he hopes he will be remembered for being a caring and thoughtful man who brought many people closer to Christ. The rabbi answers last; after a pause, she says “I would want people at my funeral to say: ‘look! She’s breathing!’”
Joking aside, the question of what we hope is said about our lives is a fascinating one. Each of us leaves a legacy—and the new year is a wonderful time to think about what that will look like.
One of the things that always strikes me about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that in some ways the holidays can make us feel like we are starting the new year with a clean slate. But to think like that suggests that our actions and words only have a fleeting impact on others and on the world in which we live. The reality is that all of what we do, i.e. the good and the bad which will ultimately comprise our legacy, is created over our lifetimes and felt for a long time.
In our fast-paced world, many of us don’t have the luxury to reflect on what we do well. Instead, we only find time to dwell on our missteps, often rewinding in our minds those things we regret. But, there’s value in also focusing on where we do well and where we do good. It can help us chart our course for being our best selves moving forward.
A centuries-old tradition that some Jews participate in is writing an ethical will—a document that articulates values to pass on to future generations. This is certainly a worthwhile practice. But whether we write such a document or not – all of us can at least take a few minutes to focus on what it is that matters to us: if we were going to write a personal vision statement, what would that look like?
I recently read a graphic novel called On Purpose by Vic Strecher. Dr. Strecher points out that having a purpose has many benefits; focusing on something beyond our egos helps us grow, helps makes us more resilient, and can actually help prevent disease. In reading this book I realized that charting our purpose in a forward direction is how we can work to make sure that we ultimately have the legacy we want. To paraphrase psychiatrist Victor Frankl, it’s not just about having the means to live, but having meaning to live.
This blog post is a shortened version of my Yom Kippur sermon which can be viewed here.
Tonight begins the 8-day festival of Sukkot (7 days in Israel and in the American Reform movement). One of the core texts from the Torah we learn about the festival of sukkot is v’samachta b’chageicha, v’hayita ach sameach—we should rejoice in our holiday and we should feel nothing but happiness. We even sing a catchy chant using these words. But, is it really possible to command happiness?
We live in challenging times. Wars, diseases, and injustice around the globe, it’s no wonder that this year’s most famous song was so uplifting. Pharrell Williams helped to get us all out of our funk when he sang:
It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way
Because I’m happy – Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy – Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy – Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy – Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do
I think Pharrell Williams sang the song that we really needed to hear this year. Happiness isn’t easy to come by, but it’s something we’re all searching for—not just on the weeklong holiday of Sukkot, but all year round. But what really is happiness? Because if we don’t know what happiness really is, then maybe we’re wasting a whole lot of precious time in our lives by seeking it out!
In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert uses cutting-edge research to show that happiness is not really what or where we thought it was. We often think we know what will make us happy, but we really do not. We also say we are happy but oftentimes, as Gilbert explains, we are just misusing the term “happy.” Reading Gilbert’s book forced me to think of new ways to think of happiness and to bring more happiness into my own life.
I love how Gilbert begins his book Stumbling on Happiness: “Despite the third word of the title, this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy. Those books are located in the self-help section two aisles over, and once you’ve bought one, done everything it says to do, and found yourself miserable anyway, you can always come back here to understand why.”
Rather than thinking about this pursuit of happiness as a search for a life in which we’re always happy in the sense we typically think of happiness—always smiling, laughing, you know, Disney’s concept of Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder—I’d like you to consider three words that better define what we’re seeking. Not happiness, but contentment, gratitude and meaning. Let’s explore these three concepts:
Contentment requires that we look around at our family and our home and our lot in life and we say “Baruch Hashem”—blessed is God for my life. I’m not a fan of saying Baruch Hashem in a reflexive way every time someone asks how things are going, but I do believe we need to spend more time feeling grateful for what we have. That is contentment.
Now, let’s look at another better way to think of the goal of happiness and that is gratitude. Studies have shown that people who practice gratitude in their daily life are happier than those who do not. There seems to be a clear connection between learning to be grateful and living a more fulfilling life. Social science research has demonstrated that cultivating gratitude, learning to recognize and respond with thankfulness to the goodness of other people and the beauty in life, as opposed to complaint or indifference, stimulates a host of benefits.
Gratitude means being attuned to the gifts that have come our way. Sukkot, is almost completely about expressing gratitude. The Avinu Malkeinu prayer we sang on Rosh Hashanah (we omitted it this Yom Kippur since it fell on Shabbat) is all about the gratitude we give to God. In fact, the vast majority of our prayers consists of offering gratitude to God for our lives.
And this brings us to meaning: In an article in The Atlantic in January 2013, the author takes a look at happiness through the perspective of Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, who was arrested in September 1942 and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. When Frankl’s camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had died, but he survived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. As Frankl saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
I wish you a Chag Sameach—may Sukkot help you find contentment, meaning and gratitude in addition to joy.
I recently had the privilege of serving on a Beit Din (Rabbinic Court) for an individual who was converting to Judaism. It was, as I have found all prior instances, a powerful and deeply moving experience. Listening to this individual explain his Jewish journey and the reasons he wanted to convert nearly moved me to tears. His story affirmed, for me, all the spiritual and social good Judaism can provide at its best. As his face beamed with pride as he emerged from the mikveh, I knew that he had made a decision that would bring him immense meaning and joy.
But there was one aspect of my conversation with the individual that troubled me. Part of the Beit Din process involves asking the conversion candidate a variety of questions, both about his past and his present. While he answered most questions capably and with passion, there was one question I asked him for which he lacked much of an answer: “who is God to you?” I was curious to learn more about his theology and wanted to know what metaphor of God he most resonated with. Not only was he unable to verbalize anything concrete, but he also seemed to suggest that this hadn’t been a point of emphasis in his conversion course. I am both not surprised and deeply disappointed.
The Jewish community has just emerged from our annual crash course in theology. It is impossible to read the High Holy Days Mahzor and not think about God. The primary metaphor of Rosh Hashanah is of God as sovereign sitting in judgment over our deeds from the past year, while the primary metaphor of Yom Kippur is of us asking God to exercise mercy and restraint in judging us. Perhaps the fundamental challenge I face in leading High Holy Days services is both offering the metaphor of God in judgment, for those with whom it resonates, and critiquing that metaphor, for those with whom it is deeply alienating. (Full disclosure: as a process theologian, I reject both metaphors and prefer a partnership model.) I spend a good deal of my English speaking roles during the service explaining the liturgy and offering alternative ways to understand the liturgy that speak to different views of God.
But regardless of which approach of God one embraces, I think it is fundamental that one embrace (even temporarily) a view. To ignore theology, on the High Holy Days, dilutes (though does not eliminate) the efficacy of our experience. If God is irrelevant, then the only reasons to come to services on the High Holy Days are: 1) cultural/social (“because that’s what Jews do on the High Holy Days”) or 2) purely personal (i.e. a self-improvement contemplative practice). oth of these goals are worthwhile in and of themselves, but the process is incomplete without God. That’s why I am saddened when I read posts that take God out of the High Holy Days, and why I cannot be a Rabbi In Favor Of Atheism. Grappling with God (along with Torah and Israel) is an essential component of what makes us Jews; we cannot abdicate this struggle. To be clear, there is no single approach to understanding God that I am advocating; only that one commit oneself to having a view about who or what God is to them and letting that view inform the way he or she engages with the world around us.
So I challenged the conversion candidate to keep thinking about God. I gave him a few different metaphors for God to consider and urged him to keep thinking about it, to keep struggling with trying to articulate who or what God is for him. I advised him that this journey never really ends, and that he might find himself holding radically different views as his life circumstances change. And I encouraged him that the struggle is worth it and will add richness and depth to his new Jewish identity.
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The majesty and transcendence of the High Holidays are behind us. Rosh Hashanah with its coronation of God and Yom Kippur with the liturgical immersion into the Holy of Holies of the Holy Temple has passed. The machzorim, the special prayer books, have been put back into the storage rooms. The shofar has been put back on to the shelf and the grocery stores will stop ordering extra quantities of apples and honey until next year. That seat you spent so many hours in at synagogue (or the seat that you purchased but barely saw during these past two weeks) will also resume its normal life of being unoccupied. The cushion will resettle, the indentations will be erased and dust will begin to collect. Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way.
What would happen if you didn’t let your seat at synagogue go unused this new year? What would happen if you came back and visited that seat when no ticket was needed to sit in it. The machzorim are put away but in their stead you will find the siddur, the year round prayer book. Do you believe your experience during the next round of High Holidays would be different if you were more than an annual visitor?
People sometimes compare the High Holidays to the Superbowl. No matter if you are a fan all year or even know the rules of the game there is something captivating about tuning into the game on the big day and knowing you are joining hundreds of millions of other people who are doing the same thing. The comparison has a point but it also falls short.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not built like the Superbowl. They are not built with an easy ability to tap into with no prior experience or knowledge. There are no multi-million dollar commercials in the midst of the service or professional athletes facing off against each other. Instead there is the sublime poetry and prose of the prayers. There are the melodies, some very old and some very new, that are meant to enter our heart and soul and move us in a religious experience. There is the introspection and reflection that finds its peak during the High Holidays. This is not the sort of thing that can be readily experienced at its fullest with no prior background. The ticket you purchased gains you entry into the building and a seat to sit on but if that is the only time you sit in that seat all year you very will might find yourself unable to access the moment you have paid for and craving to find some of its relevancy in your life.
So this year let us find time to fill that seat throughout the year. It’s alright to dip your toes in gently and build as time progresses. Build familiarity with the rhythm of Jewish ritual and prayer. Stretch those muscles of introspection and reflection. By doing so you may find that the next Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be an entirely different experience. Your seat will recognize you, the cushion will not be dusty, the prayer book will be an old friend and the melodies will penetrate your heart and lift you in soulful meaning.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is finished for the year but your seat will not be lonely for the next eleven months. Shanah Tovah, a good, sweet year of meaning making and spiritual growth to all.
At the end of the Day of Atonement we petition: “Breathe into me of Your spirit, and I will live a new life, the life of an infant reborn.” And when the shofar blasts we look around at the nursery that is our prayer community feeling fragile and seeing fragility in others. We emerge from our houses of worship full of newborn hope.
It’s a season of great possibility and there is quiet joy in our fresh start. But there has also been pain inherent in our repentance. Now, the tenderness of relinquishing aspects of self has to be folded into the overarching sweetness of life. And the swell of our sacred year, with its flow from one holiday to the next, bears us on its course.
We are carried from otherworldly interiority back to bodily being, into the simple joy of sitting elbow to elbow with family and friends under an arbor decorated with the fruits of the season. The holiday that’s called “The Season of Our Joy” mediates between our deep internal work and resumption of our work in the world. As transitional as the sukkah is nomadic, this next holiday transports us from the shock of re-birth to the vigor of life through a series of reintroductions to the most basic joys of being a human being on this earth.
Today I am a woman in overalls making sugar cookie dough for my great grandmother’s plum pie, the one containing concentric rings of plums standing on end so the pie looks like a crown for the “Head” (Rosh) of the year. And my husband is a be-aproned man par-boiling cabbage for his mother’s stuffed cabbage recipe, the one he keeps in our recipe file in her ten pages of longhand. We have been to the botanical garden to load our car full of palm tree clippings. We’ve solved a simple engineering problem in our slight sukkah design modification. Soon our young adult daughter will come to sift through the box of decorations and we’ll indulge in some nostalgia as we laugh over the slightly mouse-eaten paper bag pumpkins our daughters made decades ago.
There’s no time to linger in the gestational womb that was Yom Kippur. There’s so much to do!
The current is fast and it’s moving me out of my precious transcendence but, even so, on into new stages of teshuvah, if I think of teshuvah as return. I am still in the process of returning to my serious missions in life, forgiven for my mis-deeds but not dismissed from my responsibility to follow through with my unique contribution to creating a heaven on earth. I am returning by way of this interim passage through engagement in my most elemental gratifications: my motherhood, being a partner and a daughter and a friend, being out of doors, using my ingenuity, building things, creating beauty, and preparing to feed wave after wave of the people I love most.
When I really get back to work I will have sat under the stars every night for a week. I will have experienced still more Days of a different Awe in a different House of the Lord. This is simchat mitzvah, the joy I experience allowing the mitzvot of preparing for Sukkot to nurture me in my born-again vulnerability, guiding me home, showing me, anew, my deep roots in domesticity, nature, and relationships.
On Sukkot, it’s customary to read Chapter 14 from the prophet Zechariah.
Have you read it? I mean, really read it?
If you have, you’ll know that Zechariah was an unusual thinker.
Zechariah hoped Sukkot could be an opportunity for shared healing after regional war. “The survivors of every nation,” he wrote, “will ascend to Jerusalem year after year, to worship the God beyond all armies, and to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot” (Zechariah 14:16).
Camping together, making music, cooking food, sharing customs and creating new ones at an annual week-long interfaith festival: that was Zechariah’s visionary plan for regional healing. We don’t begin with political dialogue, theological comparison, or even shared stories of hurt and joy. Instead, we simply practice together in joy, one week a year.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l picked up on Zechariah’s cue. “A dialogue of theology is mostly futile,” he said. “Theology is the afterthought of a believer. It begins with what we should finish with. How do you get to the primary stuff of belief? You show me your way that works for you, I’ll show you mine, and we can share!” (Deep Ecumenism workshop, 1998)
Of course, learning by mutual “showing” is not really that simple. In fact, it’s pretty easy to see right past what we are shown, because we wear many lenses of preconception over our mind’s eye.
We may generously see every religion as a way of approaching God—as we define God, that is.
Using our best compassionate psychology, we may imagine we know the full catalogue of existential questions that faith answers.
We may speak idealistically of “universal” human themes, while unconsciously limiting the universal by gender, age, race, or nationality.
Too often, we employ what philosopher Paul Ricoeur called a “hermeneutic [interpretive lens] of suspicion.” Because we believe we know what truly drives all religious expression, we are suspicious of superficial differences. We look at differences—and sometimes right through differences—just long enough to confirm our theories.
It is much more difficult to practice what Ricoeur called a “hermeneutic of recollection”—to immerse ourselves in a practice, side by side with believers, and get a feel for what they receive. It’s difficult to let go of preconceptions, and it’s difficult to let go of fears.
The fears are big, and they are not mere fantasies. What if I see God their way, feel called to convert, and lose my entire family? What if I am overpowered by groupthink, and join a cult doing activities I will later condemn? What if joining a new group means I am supposed to despise the one that raised me?
Perhaps the fears would be lessened if we shared our practices within a structured ritual format—like the one Zechariah envisioned for Sukkot. One week a year, we would gather in regional groups for interfaith camp—outdoors at a campsite, if weather permits. Working side by side, we would negotiate the meals; schedule ritual prayers for all open to all; share musical traditions, children’s games, and daily camp tasks. We would agree on rules against evangelizing within or after camp. We would allow each regional gathering to develop its own unique flavor, its own signature traditions for this special week.
Yes, Sukkot Camp does sound a bit like a hippie festival, and maybe Zechariah, with his dreamy visions, was the 6th Century BCE equivalent of a hippie. However, this epithet might be a plus, if you think of the successful 30-year old Burning Man festival, and the smaller spin-off gatherings created by energetic communities around the world.
Hippie or not, Zechariah’s radical visions are celebrated in our tradition. Perhaps we could try to implement just one of his visions, creating a mini-multicultural city of Sukkot with intention and good faith, as we bypass ways of thinking that constrain us, and lay seeds for cooperation and peace.
Thanks to the Intention Gathering, and to Rabbi Arthur Waskow. Image by Oseh Shalom, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
That’s not something you hear all the time, especially on the day leading into Yom Kippur, perhaps the most G*d soaked day of them all. Now there are rabbinic colleagues of mine who are humanists and live and teach Jewish values in a framework that does not necessarily affirm the existence of G*d. But the Rabbis In favor of Atheism I am referring to are not these rabbis and are not contemporary Rabbis at all. Nor are they atheists by any stretch.
A story: The Hasidic master R. Moshe Leib of Sassov taught that no attribute that was created was created in vain. His student could not resist challenging him: “so what use can denial of G*d’s existence have.” The master looked at him and answered: when some one comes to you and says they are in need you should not say “G*d will provide” but act as if in fact there is no one to act but you.
This very conversation was also attested to in the yeshivot, the study houses, of the Lithuanian Sages influenced by Mussar, a movement dedicated to spiritual refinement and relentless self-searching in lieu of purely outward signs of piety. The great architect of the Mussar school was Rabbi Yisroel Salanter whose personal acts of community service combined with pointed aphorisms to inspire a lasting heritage of life lessons.
One of his sayings that has become beloved by many is “the material needs of my neighbor are my spiritual needs…. With oneself one should privilege the soul above the body, but with others do not disregard the body…. do not rely on trust of G*d.”
Like Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, Rabbi Yisroel knew how easily one could lose sight of a key purpose of faith – not to concern oneself with other’s soul, but with their physical needs.
In fact, their insights arise from a deeper place in the tradition. The stirring chapters of Isaiah that are read on the morning of Yom Kippur. At the very time when the people are fasting, intentionally refraining from the physical presumably to elevate the place of the spiritual, we read the great prophet’s words on behalf of G*d: ” Is such the fast I desire, a day to starve their bodies?…… No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness…. to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to ignore your own flesh”
On this day, so coursing with spiritual imagery, as we release ourselves from the bounds of the physical world, we must be reminded, whatever our conception of G*d or G*d’s absence, the responsibility to act on the material needs of others is not in heaven but for us.
For those fasting, fast well and may we all be inscribed for a year of fulfilled needs and fulfilling actions.
“Ever tried, ever failed,” Samuel Beckett once wrote. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. “ (in Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, by Dani Shapiro, p.3)
There is an old saying, from the Yiddish that asks how should we define a tzadik? Tzadik, from the same root as tzedek or tzedakah, literally means one who is righteous and just; it is usually used to describe someone who is wise and highly respected. But the old Yiddish saying defines the tzadik as “one who makes new mistakes.”
It was the great Jewish philosopher and expounder, Maimonides, in the 13th century, who taught that the final stage of teshuvah— repenting for one’s mistakes—is that, would we find ourselves in the same situation again, we would not repeat that mistake. Now, I know that a mistake is not the same as a failure.
Failure can be the lack of a desired outcome, even when we did our very best and didn’t do anything wrong. But the errors we make in life—errors of judgment, lack of effort, poorly chosen words, unethical choices … these are forms of failure. To err is human, but our ability to pull ourselves back from harmful patterns of behavior, to reflect on what has gone wrong, and to choose our response when we are aware of our failures—this is a vital part of life’s journey. And our Torah and traditions teach us that this is an important part of our spiritual journey too, as individuals and as a community of faith.
Take, for example, the story of our first great patriarch—Abraham. His journey from his homeland—the land of his father to a new place that God will show him is not just a physical journey. It represents the spiritual journey that takes him to a faith in one God, and a sense of purpose and meaning in life that is about establishing something that will go on long after his life is over.
Let’s take a look at how that story begins:
(Gen 12) God said to Abram, “Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great. You shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.”
Now, receiving a message like that could go to one’s head. All these promises of greatness, and bountiful blessings—you’ve got to be something a bit special to warrant God’s attention in this way. Was Abraham God’s golden boy?
What’s interesting is what happens next in the story. Abram, we are told, leaves just as God has commanded. He stops near Beth El and builds an altar. And then…
(12:10) There was a famine in the land. Abram headed south to Egypt to stay there for a while, since the famine had grown very severe in the land. As they approached Egypt, he said to his wife, Sarai, “I realize that you are a good-looking woman. When the Egyptians see you, they will assume that you are my wife and kill me, allowing you to live. If you would, say that you are my sister. They will be good to me for your sake, and through your efforts, my life will be spared.”
Barely 4 verses earlier, God was promising Abram greatness and blessings. What must Abram be thinking at this moment… famine, entering a land with customs and practices that put his very life at risk? This is not the only time in Abram’s life that he will experience things not going as planned. The Mishnah, in Avot (5:3) tells us that Abraham experienced 10 testing times in his life. A variety of commentaries offer different lists of what the ten are—some are drawn only from the Biblical text and some also include events from Abraham’s life that we only find in rabbinic midrash.
We see in these stories that, even in the midst of the very start of the spiritual journeys that led to the creation of our people and our faith tradition, failure and struggle are integral to that story.
We may have a sense of mission, or a goal that we think we are aiming toward. We may be infused initially with great enthusiasm about heading toward our goal. But then life takes an unexpected turn. Like the famine that sent Abram to Egypt, we are starved of the means to immediately get to our perceived destination.
This can be about life in general, but much more frequently it is about the specifics of our lives. It might be about a new venture at work, or the implementation of a new strategy. We may have some clarity of vision but, just a short while into the project, we come up against challenges—personnel, resources, bureaucracy… and we have to take a detour, or reassess. Sometimes we can’t get to where we thought we were headed… at least, not at first.
What happens when we fail? What would keep us on this path of striving to live by such high ideals and ethics when we don’t always receive the reward of success and a life without challenge? Don’t we sometimes have days, or years, when we find ourselves wondering what it’s all about, when we see others around us, who don’t appear to be better than us, succeeding where we are failing? Don’t we get tempted, like the school child who isn’t willing to accept the lessons of failure, to cheat?
‘Look!’, we are told by the Rabbis of old, “at our spiritual ancestor, Abraham.” Not just one bad day, or one bad year, but 10 tests! Our spiritual life journey, even if we were the founding patriarch, does not teach us that a life of faith is a life of success. It teaches us that a life of faith is a life of resilience. A life in which we realize that we can gain wisdom from the downs as well as the ups of life.
Perhaps the key to success is failure. If by “success” we mean how much we progress up the career ladder, how much money we earn, how big a house we have, what exotic places we went on vacation, then I don’t think this is a lesson we want or need.
But if, instead, by success we mean how we respond in times of challenge and need to each other, whether we reflect on our failures or mistakes with humility and self-awareness, whether we continue to strive to be a mensch even when life is getting us down, and whether we aspire to be what some of our Yiddish-speaking ancestors defined as the tzadik—one who makes new mistakes … if that is what success in this life looks like then, yes indeed, the key may lie in our failures, and the lessons and the resilience that arises from them.