Our Mistakes Define Us

by Rabbi Jared H. Saks

Kol Nidre 5780 | October 8, 2019 – 10 Tishrei 5780

Conventional wisdom tells us that mistakes are valuable teachers. They are how we grow and gain wisdom. They teach us how to behave. When we make a mistake, we should ask ourselves what lesson is in it. “We all make mistakes–sometimes huge mistakes–but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t worthwhile, lovable, worthy of trust, worthy of benefit of the doubt, and worthy of another chance.”[1] What we want to hear is, “You are not your mistake,”[2] but what I want to talk with you about tonight is that I think our mistakes define us, powerfully and profoundly, and that’s a good thing.

“There’s an old saying, from the Yiddish, that asks how we should define a tzadik? Tzadik, from the same root as tzedek and 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.’”[3] Maimonides, the 13th century philosopher, physician, and commentator on Jewish text, teaches that true t’shuvah, true repentance, is that when we find ourselves in the same situation, we don’t make the same mistake, but he doesn’t tell us that true repentance means we don’t make any mistakes anymore. Mistakes and failure can happen even when we do our best.

The British prime minister Winston Churchill once said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” Typically, we find ourselves to have greater worth when we succeed and to have less worth when we fail, but our failures can also be a measure of our having great worth. The Kol Nidre prayer is all about failure. We ask God, in advance, to forgive us for the promises and commitments that we are unable to keep over the year ahead. Not only does God not expect perfection, God permits, even welcomes, imperfection. God knows that we will fail, that we will make mistakes, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

So, how can we find meaning in our failures? How can we find a sense of self-worth in them? “One of our greatest fears is failure. The possibility of failing is terrifying to the point that we abandon many important activities to avoid it. We are frightened of humiliation, disappointment, letting ourselves or others down, and worst of all, ruining our reputation.”[4] We cannot guarantee that everything we do will end in success. Part of the genius of God’s design of the world is that failure is one of the paths to growth.

The beauty of our tradition is that it doesn’t hold up the heroes of Torah as models of perfection. Throughout their wanderings in the wilderness, the Israelites grumble at Moses. They ask to be returned to Egypt. They resist relationship with God and doubt both God and Moses. They push Moses to his breaking point. “Moses questioned his leadership and [felt] he failed his mission. Moses pled to God saying, ‘I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness’ (Numbers 11:14-15).”[5] Moses and so many others in our sacred texts embody the human condition of failure. Rather than diminish, this defines who they are. Success does not mean not failing.

There’s a story about a man who approaches his rabbi and asks where to find success. The rabbi doesn’t speak, but she points down the road a bit. The man heads out down the road and all of a sudden, Crash!, he comes upon misfortune. He heads back to rabbi with a bruised ego, maybe even a bruised body, and asks again for the path to success. Once again, the rabbi points down the road, without saying a word. The man sets out again and again things don’t go his way. He comes back to the rabbi and asks her again where to find success, but this time demands that she speak. She still points down the road, but this time says, “Success comes just past failure.” We all know that feeling of encountering pitfall, danger, and failure. Today is not about erasing our mistakes and our failures. This day is not only about confronting those moments, but also about incorporating them into our being.

Often when I’m counseling wedding couples, I tell them that successful relationships are not relationships without conflict. Every healthy relationship has conflict and it’s actually an important component. Healthy relationships, I tell them, move from harmony to disharmony to growth. There is no way to avoid failure, conflict, or mishaps in our lives. The real question lies in how we grow from those and how we let those experiences become a part of who we are. By engaging with our failures, we learn that we have it within us to set ourselves back on the right path once again, and again and again and again after that. “Failure does not make us bad people. And, failure does not negate our previous efforts and our successes.”[6] T’shuvah, the work of repentance and return in which we engage especially on this day, isn’t only about seeking forgiveness from others and from God. It’s also about forgiving ourselves for our own shortcomings. “Failure does not define us as a person. Rather, failure can help us grow toward our potential.”[7] By engaging with our mistakes, accepting them as part of what makes us whole, we come to realize that while we can’t change the past, we still have the power to change the future. “At the foundation of every person exists a Divine spark of infinite goodness and purity.… When we are unsuccessful in a particular project, our essential goodness remains intact.”[8]

Along with his wife, Philip Lader, former American ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, organized renaissance weekends for his contemporaries, beginning in 1981. Among all of these leaders and gifted people, there was one thing they had in common: a difficulty in admitting they’d made mistakes. Lader incorporated into these weekends a session where one of these recognized stars in their field would give a talk called My Biggest Blooper. By exposing their failures to one another, these dignitaries were able better to see each other’s and their own humanity.

When I was a student rabbi in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, I was approached by the president of the congregation and his wife to officiate at a baby naming for their new grandson. The baby was born in California and the extended family would all be flying to central Pennsylvania for the naming ceremony. At this point in my career, I’d never officiated at a b’rit milah or naming ceremony and I tended to approach Jewish tradition rather conservatively in the abstract, though I’d not had much practical experience yet. After agreeing to officiate at the naming ceremony, I learned that the baby would not yet be circumcised. At the time, this presented as an obstacle and I told the new grandparents that I didn’t think I could officiate. They were irate. Their children had already purchased plane tickets. How could I back out of my obligation? I approached an Orthodox professor at my seminary to figure out what to do. Dr. Sharon Koren said to me, “You can’t have a soul wandering around without a name.” It was decided. I could officiate even though b’rit milah or circumcision would not be taking place. This error in judgment, taking on a commitment without considering its implications and then backtracking on the people to whom I’d made it, has been a valuable lesson not only in my rabbinate, but also in how I engage with others on a daily basis. Whenever I can say, “Let me consider that and get back to you,” I’m drawn back to that error and it’s become part of who I am, making me, I hope, a better person and a better rabbi because of it.

The essence of Yom Kippur is about facing our biggest bloopers. In the days of the Temple and of the Mishkan, the portable wilderness sanctuary before it, this was how Yom Kippur was observed: the High Priest would confess his sins, the sins of his own house, and then the sins of the people. He was the intermediary between the people and God and he performed the rites and rituals of their atonement on their behalf. But without the Temple and its sacrificial rites, this responsibility now falls to each us. And, I think that’s better for us. “It is so much easier to admit your sins, failings, and mistakes when other people are doing likewise.”[9]

Unfortunately, “the capacity to admit mistakes is anything but widespread. We rationalize. We justify. We deny. We blame others.”[10] Our ability to avoid owning our mistakes seems to be limitless. “We have an almost infinite capacity for interpreting the facts to vindicate ourselves.”[11] Yet, our tradition offers us a threefold path to admitting our mistakes. First, God forgives. God doesn’t ask us never to make a mistake again. But God does ask us to admit to our mistakes, let them teach us, and endeavor not to make the same mistake again. Second, while Judaism acknowledges the reality of sin, it does not say that we are sinners. We are created with both yetzer tov, an inclination to do the right thing, and yetzer ra, an impulse that pushes us to do what we ought not do. Doing the wrong thing doesn’t make us bad people. It makes us human. It’s what we do after that defines us. And this is the third gift our tradition gives us. This day of Yom Kippur should reverberate throughout the rest of the year. Yom Kippur should help, “create a culture of honesty in which we are not ashamed to acknowledge the wrongs we have done,”[12] that stays with us throughout the year.

The first person in Torah to admit fault is Judah, one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Twice he models admission of guilt for us. The first is with his daughter-in-law, Tamar, whom he accuses of sexual misconduct, when he is actually the one to blame. When he realizes that he is wrong, he says, “She is more righteous than I” (Genesis 38:26). Later, he demonstrates remorse to his brother, Joseph, even before he knows who Joseph is, and offers himself as a prisoner in place of their brother, Benjamin. Judah gets his name, Yehudah, in Hebrew, because his mother, Leah, expresses gratitude, hoda’ah at his birth. But the name Yehudah is also connected with the Hebrew word vidui, the admission of guilt we recite on Yom Kippur and other key moments in our lives. Judaism is named for Judah. We are yehudim, descendants of Yehudah. “We are the people who have the courage to admit our wrongs.”[13] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, writes, “Honest self-criticism is one of the unmistakable marks of spiritual greatness.”[14]

In an episode of his podcast Revisionist History, Malcom Gladwell explores the concept of parapraxis. Parapraxis, a term coined by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, derives from the Greek roots para, meaning wrong, and praxis, meaning acts. These are faulty acts, slips of the tongue, misreadings, or as we know them, Freudian slips. Freud suggests that, for the most part, there are no accidental slips. Some may be due to fatigue or other issues, but in general, most have a meaning. These mistakes reveal something about us. Gladwell shares a story about Elvis Presley to explain how these errors in speech reveal truths about us.

Elvis was a twinless twin. His twin sibling died in utero. Additionally, his mother died when Elvis was only 23 years old. At her funeral, he was heartbroken, threw himself on the casket, and said that he wanted to go with her. He had a morbid fascination throughout his life, including taking his wife, Priscilla, on a date to a morgue. Complicated feelings, according to Freud, are normally suppressed, but occasionally come out as slips. The most profound parapraxis in Elvis’s career concerns his song Are You Lonesome Tonight?. Are You Lonesome Tonight? was written by Roy Turk and Lou Handman in 1926. Elvis first recorded the song on April 4, 1960, after numerous takes, none of which pleased Elvis. Neither he nor the label ever really loved the song. After this, though, Elvis could never quite get the song right.

Elvis was not someone who often forgot the lyrics to his music. But with Are You Lonesome Tonight?, it was different. Elvis mangles every live performance of which there is a recording. The first half of the song is sung and it’s all questions. A man wonders if his lover misses him. Then, there is a spoken bridge, which many singers leave out. The emotional tables are turned and the man leaves himself bare. The bridge is about the singer’s lonesomeness, not about his wondering about his lover’s lonesomeness. It is a deeply emotional song. By virtue of the lyrics alone, the singer is in control during the sung parts, but not during the spoken bridge. In the ten known live recordings of Elvis singing Are You Lonesome Tonight?, the sung portion Elvis sings flawlessly, but in the spoken bridge, he makes over 100 mistakes. The worst is after the summer of 1972, when Priscilla leaves him. Malcolm Gladwell says, “A man who fears betrayal and abandonment is betrayed and abandoned. It’s too much. He’s a wreck.”[15] When we make mistakes, we worry about failure, embarrassment. We judge ourselves and we assume others are judging us, too. But “parapraxis is not failure. When the performer slips, the audience is not cheated. It’s the opposite. Parapraxis is a gift.”[16] Elvis’s singing after he lost Priscilla gave the audience a window into his pain. “Mistakes reveal our vulnerabilities. They are the way the world understands us, the way performers make their performances real.”[17]

“Yom Kippur is a day dedicated to acknowledging our failings.”[18] Throughout the day, we repeat to ourselves that we have sinned. We draw our attention to the ways we’ve missed the mark. We remind ourselves of our imperfections. Our culture, though, focuses on self-esteem. We aren’t open to criticism, certainly not self-criticism. “What if the real secret to success is failure?”[19] Keeping score of our errors, failures, and weaknesses is how we will improve and fulfill our potential. “To learn how to fail is nothing less than a succinct, five-word summary of the Yom Kippur confessional.”[20] We admit we aren’t perfect in order to take on the responsibility of improving ourselves. “On Yom Kippur, when we’re asked to reflect upon whether our lives can be considered a success, we’re judged by whether we’re courageous enough to confess our sins and to admit our faults.… To acknowledge, to God and to ourselves, where we’ve gone wrong in our lives doesn’t diminish us. On the contrary, it affords us the wisdom and strength to grow and to improve.”[21] There’s a world of difference between “I failed” and “I am a failure.”

This year, consider not how your mistakes make you less than what you ought to be, but how they make up a vital part of who you are, how they reveal an honesty about who you are so that you can continue to fulfill your potential. G’mar chatimah tovah, may you be sealed for blessing in the Book of Life. Shanah tovah.

[1] Neil Rosenthal, “Learn from your mistakes but don’t let them define you,” Denver Post, https://www.denverpost.com/2015/10/14/learn-from-your-mistakes-but-dont-let-them-define-you/, October 14, 2015.

[2] Rosenthal.

[3] Rachel Gurevitz, “The Key to Success is Failure,” MyJewishLearning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/rabbis-without-borders/the-key-to-success-is-failure/, October 1, 2014.

[4] Michoel Gourarie, “How to Fail,” Chabad, https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1157865/jewish/How-to-Fail.htm.

[5] Adam Wright, Finding Meaning from our Failures, Temple Solel, October 2016.

[6] Wright.

[7] Wright.

[8] Gourarie.

[9] Jonathan Sacks, “TheCourage to Admit Mistakes (Acharei Mot 5776),” Covenant & Conversation, http://rabbisacks.org/courage-admit-mistakes-acharei-mot-5776/, May 4, 2016.

[10] Sacks.

[11] Sacks.

[12] Sacks.

[13] Sacks.

[14] Sacks.

[15] Malcolm Gladwell, “Analysis, Parapraxis, Elvis,” Revisionist History, Season 3, Episode 10, http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/30-analysis-parapraxis-elvis.

[16] Gladwell.

[17] Gladwell.

[18] Benjamin Blech, “Yom Kippur:  The Blessing of Failure – Recognizing our shortcomings is the only way to achieve success in life,” Aish, https://www.aish.com/h/hh/yom-kippur/theme/Yom_Kippur_The_Blessing_Of_Failure.html.

[19] Blech.

[20] Blech.

[21] Blech.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

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