“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.
I was a college student doing about 78 mph on my way from Pittsburgh to New York City to visit my boyfriend. Suddenly flashing lights appeared behind me, my stomach flipped over, and I was busted. The officer sauntered up to my window. He asked questions that I felt were intrusive, like where was I going, where was I coming from, who was I going to see. He made a comment about my “pretty face” being smashed if I crashed at that speed. I wanted him to just give me a ticket and go away. Finally he did.
This isn’t a dramatic story. Most of my interactions with police have been related to speeding. They have been uneventful. I doubt that police officers, when they see this white professional woman’s face, feel at all threatened. Even so, in the story above, I felt shamed and angry. I can only imagine how it feels to be stopped and frisked repeatedly, or pulled over for no reason other than my race. I expect that many officers engaged in those activities are showing at least as much condescension as was shown to me.
I can also only imagine what it is to be a police officer. Last week in the Washington Post, Sunil Dutta wrote about what it’s like for him and his colleagues. His emphasis was on the behavior of the person stopped, not on the behavior of the officer stopping them, though he mentions that officers should treat people with courtesy and respect. Research shows that students meet the expectations of their teachers. By the same token, the way people are treated affects their behavior and their self-image. Police officers have a lot of power over the people they stop. Treating people like criminals, humiliating them, or assuming they’re up to no good, all have an impact on the relationship between police and residents of a community that is detrimental.
Judaism places high value on the dignity of each person. In Genesis 1:27 we are told that humanity was made in the image of God—b’tzelem Elohim. This teaching urges us to recognize every person’s equal value and treat each other with dignity.
Our great rabbi Maimonides wrote that “The Sages say, ‘One who shames (lit., ‘makes white’) the face of his fellow… has no share in the World to Come’ (Pirkei Avot 3:15). Therefore, one must be careful in this matter—that he not embarrass his fellow publicly, whether a small or great [person]. And he should not call him a name which shames him, nor should he speak before him about a matter which embarrasses him.”
We are so far from these goals in many of the interactions between police and civilians in Ferguson, MO, though we saw the difference that mutual respect can make when the state highway patrol took over police operations there. Recognizing how difficult it is, we must move in the direction of honoring the dignity of every person and interacting with them accordingly. This is particularly incumbent on police, who have the power in their encounters with others.
This past week in synagogues throughout the world we rolled the Torah scroll forward and began reading from the Book of Leviticus. Each week during Shabbat services congregations all over will be reading the account of the sacrificial system that encompassed the ritual life of the Jewish people throughout their wanderings in the desert with the Tabernacle, and later with the construction of both the first and second Temples. These readings can feel foreign and removed from the lives we lead, as people disconnected from a religion that revolves around sacrifices, whether animal or grain based. What can there possibly be to learn from these sections of Torah?
Maimonides in his chief work of philosophy, The Guide to the Perplexed, suggests that the sacrificial system instituted in the Torah was a pedagogical tool meant to transform us and to change us in radical ways. What precisely is the educational aim of the sacrifices?
Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann, the 19th century rabbi of Berlin, in his introduction to the Book of Leviticus, connects the sacrificial system recorded in Leviticus to that near sacrifice of Isaac at the hands of his father Abraham in the Book of Genesis. That moment, bracketing the psychological and emotional dilemmas it presents, demonstrated in an extreme fashion the notion of self-sacrifice, of giving up something precious for a more lofty purpose. It involved taking a “leap of faith,” as the philosopher Soren Kierkagaard understood the near sacrifice of Isaac to be, that giving of yourself, sacrificing a part of what is important to you for someone or something else, will not only benefit the recipient but will benefit you as well. Thus, we can see the Torah’s sacrificial system as being the institutionalized mechanism by which the Jewish people live that value on a daily basis.
This very much is reminiscent of the famous line by President John F. Kennedy: “And so my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Kennedy was leading the country towards understanding that when we all invest into the project of building America, not only will America as a whole become stronger and greater, but each citizen, each person who puts of themselves into the project, will also reap the reward. Likewise, the impact and meaning we want and need from Judaism in our lives will only be realized and only be possible if we take the time and the energy to give of ourselves into it. We will receive according to what we put in and we will benefit and all those similarly invested will benefit from our efforts as well.
As we progress through Leviticus, let us ask ourselves: What am I ready to give of myself into the Jewish project so that it becomes richer, deeper, more profound and meaningful and will come to enrich, deepen and add meaning to my life as well?
Jewish tradition takes pride in these words, we will do and heed-na’aseh v’nishmah and one Talmudic passage even have God wondering who revealed this great secret, these words to the Jewish People. The context of course is Sinai and these words are seen as the great acceptance of Torah. The technical term for these words is hysteron proteron, “latter before” where the first term actually occurs after the second term, for example, put on your shoes and socks, but is placed first to emphasize its importance. Israel commits herself at Sinai to the totality of practice, even without necessarily knowing the extent of the laws.
Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, author of the Netivot Shalom, offers an additional reading of these words. He sees na’aseh as a commitment to do God’s will, even in the absence of specific details or legal injuctions. While fully faithful to traditional Jewish practice as legally binding, Berezovsky still understands that even in the most strict attention to observance, one must ask am I doing God’s will. While one could use this idea in an antinomian direction, for Berezovsky the question might be as I observe a particular practice, am I doing it in a way pleasing to God and one that really reflects the will of the Divine?
One of the best examples where this insight can be seen is in the case of Maimonides. In his legal work, he discusses the laws of slavery. While many would initially recoil from imagining that such laws should play a role in our tradition, nonetheless they are firmly rooted in Biblical practice. While the laws associated with Jewish slaves serve as a way for a slave to pay off enormous debt, Jews were permitted to own non-Jewish slaves. Even while acknowledging this, and codifying it, Maimonides says as follows:
It is permissible to have a Canaanite slave perform excruciating labor. Although this is the law, the attribute of piety and the way of wisdom is for a person to be merciful and to pursue justice, not to make his slaves carry a heavy yoke, nor cause them distress. He should allow them to partake of all the food and drink he serves. This was the practice of the Sages of the first generations who would give their slaves from every dish of which they themselves would partake. And they would provide food for their animals and slaves before partaking of their own meals. And so, it is written Psalms 123:2: “As the eyes of slaves to their master’s hand, and like the eyes of a maid-servant to her mistress’ hand, so are our eyes to God.”
Similarly, we should not embarrass a slave by our deeds or with words, for the Torah prescribed that they perform service, not that they be humiliated. Nor should one shout or vent anger upon them extensively. Instead, one should speak to them gently, and listen to their claims. This is explicitly stated with regard to the positive paths of Job for which he was praised Job 31:13, 15: “Have I ever shunned justice for my slave and maid-servant when they quarreled with me…. Did not He who made me in the belly make him? Was it not the One who prepared us in the womb?”
Cruelty and arrogance are found only among idol-worshipping gentiles. By contrast, the descendants of Abraham our patriarch, i.e., the Jews whom the Holy One, blessed be He, granted the goodness of the Torah and commanded to observe righteous statutes and judgments, are merciful to all.
And similarly, with regard to the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He, which He commanded us to emulate, it is written Psalms 145:9: “His mercies are upon all of His works.” And whoever shows mercy to others will have mercy shown to him, as implied by Deuteronomy 13:18: “He will show you mercy, and be merciful upon you and multiply you.”
In effect what Maimonides has done here is to be honest with what exists within Jewish tradition in a specific case and then asked what really the will of God should be in this case. Looking at the tradition as a whole, Maimonides transform the question of what is permissible or forbidden to rather one of how does my behavior best reflect God’s will. For Maimonides it is to emulate God’s practice of mercy which effectively undoes what one is theoretically permitted to do. The righteous statutes and judgments, our commandments, must lead us to be merciful in all our actions.
This being the case, then we can suggest na’aseh v’nishmah is not a revolutionary call, but rather one of evolutionary development. It seeks to move us in a direction that does not undermine past practice as primitive or lacking authority, but rather pushes us to ask the broader religious question. It is not a commitment only to mechanical practice, but to a deep moral conscious behavior.