“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.
What if God took note of every mistake you made and considered it a glorious seed for a profoundly better future? God, it seems, is often counter-cultural. Whereas our society, often despite knowing better, constantly rewards achievement and success, God has an interesting track record of recognizing positive effort even when we are surrounded by failures of our own doing.
Take for example the Biblical character of Lot. Lot is Abraham’s nephew. Abraham, father of our people, looked after Lot when his father died. When Lot grew, in age and in wealth, Abraham gave his the choice of land – and where did Lot choose? He chose to live first near the cities of Sodom and Gemorah, and then he moved into Sodom, a city which would soon-after be known for its perversion of humanity and its disdain for God’s expectations for mankind (Gen. 13:12). Why would Lot choose to live among such people? Why, after being taken captive and rescued by his uncle, Abraham, did Lot choose to stay with them (Gen. 19:1)? Certainly, Lot is a flawed character – trying to appease a crowd that has gathered at your door to molest your guest by offering your two daughters is, even by Biblical standards, flawed (Gen. 19:8).
Juxtaposed with his uncle Abraham, Lot certainly seems to come up short, but is that not true for the rest of us? While Abraham might be the ideal, the rightful patriarch of ethical monotheism, Lot, who chooses to live with and among the flawed, the non-believers, and the sinners represents the rest of us. Lot, it seems, loves the townspeople of Sodom. He marries two of his daughters to them, and perhaps he even marries a woman from one of these sin ridden towns. Why else did she turn back to see their destruction (resulting in being turned to salt), and why else would he choose to live close by, still in view of those towns, even after God rescues him and two of his daughters (Gen 19:15-22)? It turn out, a lot of us are like Lot. We’re not perfect, and sometimes we cast out lot with the flawed and those whom we know are acting badly.
And here’s the real kicker with Lot: As misguided as Lot is, God sees fit to rescue him. God rescues Lot even after he repeatedly made the choice to live among the wicked and depraved people of Sodom and Gemorah. Clearly, his two daughters that were rescued with him had been raised in a culture where morality was “less evolved”. Believing they had no other choice, they got Lot drunk and raped him in an attempt to repopulate the tribe (Gen. 19:30-38). How perverse! How shocking! And yet… And yet, despite all the depravity, it will be Lot’s offspring that produces the redeeming figure of Ruth, whose linage would lead to the heroic figure of King David, and by extension the messiah!
It’s nice to have heroes like Abraham. But what if we could never be as singularly brave, kind, or devout as Abraham? What about us who, when we are tested continually fail? What about those of us who are drawn to “the wrong kind” or are ourselves “the wrong kind”? God seems to love us also. After all, the future of Abraham’s descendants is inextricably tied to the future of the descendants of his bumbling nephew Lot. Maybe, being “too good” is not God’s liking anyway. Our sages say we should love God with our positive side and our negative side. Does that not presuppose an acceptance of our darker inclinations? Perhaps too much order, too many rules, too much reason and goodness was not God’s intention for us? The story of Lot suggests that Nietzsche was correct in saying, “You must must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”
God extends love not only to the near perfect in the world, such as Abraham. God loves the rest of us, just as He loves Lot even though he ties himself to the Bible’s most despicable townspeople. God’s love is a challenge to us. Can we love those who represent what we find to be most distasteful? Can we love ourselves when we know that we’re really screwed up? God can. God does.
At this time of Occupy Wall Street and its various offshoots, the question of social justice is certainly prominent. In this week’s Torah portion, God chooses Abraham precisely because his commitment to teaching social justice or righteousness and justice to his descendants.
The question can then be raised what exactly is the ‘social justice’ that Abraham practiced and which his descendants are to emulate. A midrash gives us one somewhat startling and playful response:
“For I have known him, to the end that hey may command his children and his household after him that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice (Genesis 18:19).
“R. Aha said in R. Alexandri’s name: This righteousness (zedakah) refers to his welcoming of guests. R. ‘Azariah said in R. Judah’s name: First righteousness (zedakah) and then justice (mishpat): how is this to be understood? Abraham used to receive wayfarers. After they had eaten and drunk he would say to them, ‘Now recite Grace.’ ‘What shall we say?” they asked. ‘Blessed be the God of the Universe of whose bounty we have partaken,’ Abraham replied. If one consented to recite grace, he would [be allowed to] eat, drink, and depart. But if one refused, Abraham would demand, ‘Pay me what you owe me.’ ‘Why, what do I owe you?’ the guest would reply. ‘One xestes’ of wine costs ten follera, a pound of meat costs ten follera; a round of bread costs ten follera. Who will give you wine in the wilderness; who will give you meat in the wilderness; who will give you bread in the wilderness? ‘ Seeing himself thus driven into a corner, the guest would say, ‘ Blessed be the God of the Universe of whose bounty we have eaten.’ Hence righteousness is written first and then justice.”
Although initially responding to a linguistic concern of the use of both righteousness and justice, the portrayal of Abraham here can raise some eyebrows. If his guests fail to bless, Abraham would turn around and charge them as customers!
The midrash places Abraham’s commitment to righteousness in the center of his tent. Abraham is the paradigm of the one who welcomes guests and this is directly related to his understanding of God. Ethics and theology here are inseparable. Abraham’s recognition of God, his awareness he does not really own what he possesses and must be shared with others emerges out of this recognition of God as ultimate Master of the cosmos.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick extends this idea one step further. Welcoming guests goes beyond merely being civil and polite. Indeed we have probably all experienced guests who challenged our patience and graciousness and gave us pause as to why we had welcomed them into our home in the first place! However, it is precisely in being patient with those who are difficult is how we can emulate God who in the Torah’s eyes is also patient with us and our shortcomings.
However, in this midrash, Abraham requires his guests, after experiencing his generosity, to bless and thank God. While this may seem as an inappropriate imposition to our eyes, one Hasidic commentator has an interesting observation.
Abraham only asked his guests to bless after they ate and not before partaking of the food. They first experienced his generosity, and had allowed Abraham to fulfill a commandment as it were, of welcoming guests. While Abraham provided them material benefit, their receiving of it gave theological/spiritual meaning to Abraham. It was not their eating that allowed them to bless God, but rather their graciousness in receiving Abraham’s hospitality. Their receiving was a transformative act that opened them up to new spiritual possibilities. Lacking that graciousness, and the ability to receive Abraham’s hospitality, they would see Abraham simply as an innkeeper where they would have to pay for what they ate.
To be a proper guest is then being able to receive the gifts of others. To be a guest in the world in the model of Abraham is to share what we have received with our fellow guests of the world. The Abraham vision of social justice that emerges from this Midrash is one rooted in a theology that we are not the ultimate masters of our tents. We are all guests. We must both give and receive with graciousness and blessing. If we lose sight of being guests, we must still give, but it loses spiritual/theological meaning and only becomes another bill to be paid.