“There can be glory in failure and despair in success.” ― Abraham Lincoln
The year was 2008, and it was a beautiful Friday night Shabbat dinner. I was sitting at the elegantly set Shabbat table at the home of Mr. Mark Bane, a prominent New York bankruptcy lawyer who had subsequently become the president of the Orthodox Union. Along with other Yeshiva students, we sat, enjoyed the Shabbat dinner, and discussed contemporary issues not long after the collapse of the financial market and the devastating aftermath of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. “You know where the problems begin?” Mr. Bane asked us, “when people are not able to embrace failure.” The discussion that ensued continued late into the night.
We were all intrigued by the concept and listened in for more.
He went on to explain that often the greatest financial devastations come from an individual’s inability to accept failure. As in the case of Mr. Maddoff, had he originally not covered his losses and just admitted failure he would not have to build a house of cards and reach such levels of loss and devastation. The same applies to other individuals. In so many cases, had people who incurred a professional loss been comfortable with acknowledging it, moving into a different home in a more modest neighborhood, and fought to make a comeback so many cases of larger fraud and disappointment could have been prevented. Had they taken pride in what Mr. Bane called “the glory of failure,” that is the ability to own up to a mistake—despite the negative public image damage we may incur— and live with its consequences, so much hardship could have been spared.
“The Glory of Failure” is not a term he reserved for individuals. So many institutions, causes, and operations could have spared themselves financial and ethical devastation had they acknowledged mistakes, embraced their failure, and moved on from there. The big problems begin with coverups, denial, and when people refuse to come to terms with a failure most often for fear of public image.
Jews often associate personal failure— or success— in the public sphere with the concepts of Kiddush Hashem—sanctifying God’s name— and Chillul Hashem, desecrating God’s name.
Hiding there in the middle of our Parasha the Torah gives us our most solemn and all-encompassing commandment:
“You shall keep My commandments and perform them. I am the Lord. You shall not desecrate My Holy Name. I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel. I am the Lord Who sanctifies you, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to be a God to you. I am the Lord.” (Vayikra 22)
These two sides of the coin—the obligation to sanctify God’s name and the prohibition against desecrating it—are discussed often in the context of the public image we project.
“What are the circumstances that cause the desecration of God’s name? Rav said: For example, in the case of someone like me, since I am an important public figure, if I take meat from a butcher and do not give him money immediately, people are likely to think that I did not mean to pay at all. They would consider me a thief and learn from my behavior that one is permitted to steal.” (Talmud Yoma 86a)
The concept of sanctifying or desecrating God’s name is understood very much through the lens of how much people associate one with God’s word and how one projects that behavior to the public.
Rabbi Yochanan continues to take this standard to a whole new level:
“Rabbi Yochanan said: What is an example of desecration of God’s name? For example, someone like me, if I would walk four cubits without Torah and without Teffilin, and the onlookers did not know that it is only on account of my body’s weakness, that would be a desecration of God’s name. Yitzchak from the school of Rabbi Yannai said: Any case when one’s friends are embarrassed on account of his reputation, meaning his friends are embarrassed due to things they hear about him, this is a desecration of God’s name.”
Once again, the desecration of God’s name is very much dependent on public perception. Conversely, the sanctification of God’s name is very much dependent on public perception:
“Abaye said: As it was taught in a Baraita that it is stated: “And you shall love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5), which means that you shall make the name of Heaven beloved. How should one do so? One should do so in that he should read Torah, and learn Mishna, and serve Torah scholars, and he should be pleasant with people in his business transactions. What do people say about such a person? Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah, fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah, woe to the people who have not studied Torah. So-and-so, who taught him Torah, see how pleasant are his ways, how proper are his deeds. The verse states about him and others like him: “You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isaiah 49:3). “
Sanctifying, God’s name is defined as reflecting publicly the values and lessons that one cherishes. Kiddush Hashem is seen as a way of projecting to others the seriousness with which one takes the values of faith and ethics. The higher the public regard for one’s persona, the higher the expectation for projecting an ethical and moral image that reflects those values that one champions.
And yet, there are plenty of examples in the Torah that reflect the exact opposite.
The Talmud states regarding the story of Judah and Tamar, a story in which Judah publicly admits to having a forbidden relationship with Tamar—surely a pretty severe public chillul Hashem—the following:
“The verse states: “And Judah acknowledged them, and said: She is more righteous than I; forasmuch as I gave her not to Shelah my son” (Genesis 38:26). This is the same as Rav Ḥanin bar Bizna says that Rabbi Shimon Ḥasida says: Joseph, who sanctified the name of Heaven in private by not committing adultery with the wife of Potiphar, merited that one letter from the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, was added to his name… Judah, who sanctified the name of Heaven in public, merited that his entire name is called by the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, for all the letters of the ineffable name of God are included within the name of Judah, with the addition of the letter dalet. When he confessed and said: “She is more righteous than I,” a Divine Voice went forth and said: You saved Tamar and her two children in her womb from being burned by the fire. By your life, i.e., in your merit, I will save three of your children from the fire. And who are they? Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (see Daniel, chapter 3)”
Judah admitting publicly to having a forbidden—highly immoral—relationship with Tamar is a Kiddush Hashem? Can you imagine what would happen if the greatest rabbi today would openly confess to the same thing in public? Surely, every religious person would put their head down and disheartenedly murmur beneath their breath: “oh, what a Chillul Hashem!”, what a desecration of God’s name. And yet the Talmud refers to it as a Kiddush Hashem.
While some would advise Judah to go out and lie about his relationship with Tamar to “avoid a Chillul Hashem,” the Talmud refers to Judah’s admission of what he had done wrong as a Kiddush Hashem—sanctifying God’s name.
The reason for this is—I heard from my dear friend Cantor Aaron Gerstel—is that a Kiddush Hashem can only be aligned with doing what is objectively right. A Kiddush Hashem may most often mean behaving in the most admirable way possible, yet at times a Kiddush Hashem entails embracing the glory of failure. Admitting that we have done wrong and living with those consequences.
In a world where public projections of who we are matter more than ever, and in times we think so much about what image we give off to the world, let us always remember that keeping our inside aligned with our outside is what a Kiddush Hashem is all about. Let us not forget that at times we will fail—we will even fail miserably—and that is ok. If we sometimes embrace the glory of failure and make sure to never sacrifice our integrity on any alter, we will surely be able to rise out of any crisis, stronger, better, and holier. Shabbat Shalom!