The people of Israel have messed up awfully. Not long after hearing the 10 Commandments, they have built an exotic golden calf, an alluring idol and are dancing around it with promiscuous abandon. Dismissed by God, Moshe is coming down the mountain with the Tablets bearing the Big Ten. When he sees the awful scene he drops and shatters them.
Now it’s 40 days later, the very first Yom Kippur. It’s cold and crisp in the Sinai Desert. Moshe descends from the cloud-shrouded mountain, his face bright and illuminated with wonder and spirituality and he carries with him a new improved version…
You could say he was the first person with a tablet downloading data from the cloud…
He brings the second set, but surprisingly he also brings with him the broken pieces of the first set. What was the point of bringing the shattered fragment, what use were they? Surely he should have thrown them away- they were obsolescent, useless; but even more than that, they were discarded reminders of pain and foolishness?
Instead, he carries them with care and dignity, places them gently together with the new set into the holy ark. He handles them with such loving attention, because he understood and wanted us to understand that we always carry around with us our failures and our sins, we always bear the burdens of our defeats and inadequacies.
Life is as much about unsuccess as it is about success. But perhaps even more, it’s about how the path to success is littered with the remains and remnants of our failures. And you’re not fully human until you face your failures, learn from them and move on from them. Mistakes are, after all, the ‘portals of discovery’. Disraeli put it well when he said “All my successes have been built on my failures” and Churchill put it in his inimitably witty way: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm”.
It took Edison 10,000 attempts to create a light bulb that worked, it took Dyson 5,126 attempts to invent a bagless vacuum cleaner. It took JK Rowlings years of rejection before Harry Potter joined the pantheon of fame. It took a Stradivarius to craft his most beautiful violins from piles of broken, waterlogged oars he found on the docks of Venice. It took Moshe 40 years of bitter battles and broiges with his kvetching nation to get them to the promised land. 40 years of desperate disappointment, losses, despair. Every effort he made to create a free, independent and holy people collapsed. And he doesn’t get to set a foot in the land which he had spent these forty years travelling towards. Can a life of failures be a success? And yet it is. Sometimes it seems it can be the greatest life there is (Sacks).
Creation by its very nature, involves taking risks – experiments that fail, start-ups that become stuff-ups, bold efforts that become flamboyant fiascos. Deficit and deficiency built into the very fabric of our being and indeed of our national destiny. We wouldn’t have a Yom Kippur if we weren’t such flawed and fragile creatures. And it all begins at the beginning – at the cusp of creation itself. The Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, talks about the ten holy vessels filled with the breathtaking, iridescent light that God launched into the new world that He had created.
Ten, כלים ten vessels, like ships each carrying a cargo of light into planet earth, but they crashed because of the burden of their sacredness: too much holy energy, too powerful for this delicate blue star of ours. They shattered into a thousand pieces of light across the globe.
That’s what life’s about – cracked vessels, shattered tablets, broken hearts, in a dangerously fragile and wounded world. Jewish destiny is about mending the broken pieces, healing the aching hearts. We call it תקון הנפש and we call it תקון עולם. We don’t seek suffering or believe we have to accept it to be enabled or to find peace. But we do embrace failure as a gateway to making ourselves stronger and the world a better place. This indeed may be one of the messages of these Covid Times-a reminder of the way we have damaged our planet and our moral mission but that there is a way forward.
Rami-Levi recalls ‘No one had time for me I dropped out of school at the end of the 8th grade because I was dyslexic and I wasn’t accepted at my preferred high school. I had to work hard because from an early age I was a nobody. I was never considered to be worth much and was always looked down on.” Today Rami Levi is founder and owner of one of Israel’s largest supermarket chains.
His story is a reminder that every single child count, every loser is a possible winner, every failure a potential success every human a spark of light.
Failure isn’t fatal. I would in fact suggest that this is part of the imperative to Jewish parents in our most sacred of prayers, The Shema: ושנותם לבנוך. Teach your children well when you sit in your house, when you are on the road, when you go to bed and when you get up in the morning.
Educating your kids is about letting them see how you act, how you behave not only when you’re out in public but when you’re in the privacy of your home. Teach them not just to have great dreams, but teach them how to fail. Tell them about your own failures.
We are experiencing an awful fragility epidemic among the young in Australia, if not the Western world. The rates of anxiety and depression are skyrocketing for generation Z – those born after the 1990’s. So many of our young people/children are too fragile to cope with minor life challenges. Social Psychologist Professor Jonathan Haidt speaks of parental over-protection. He calls it coddling, John Marsden calls it suffocating parenting, the Torah calls it cooking a kid in its mother’s milk. It’s the determined effort by adults to deprive kids of feedback from their own experience and let them freely experiment with life. Of course, it’s about encouraging our kids to take safe and healthy risks, as it is about allowing them to fail. Our kids can be taught to learn and encouraged to thrive and to take positive risks by providing the age appropriate scaffolding. And as parents we need to separate our children’s failures from our sense of failing them. It’s often our own understandable fear of failing them which leads parents to overprotect kids today. So we don’t tell our kids how we crashed at school, failed at business and how we took risks like travelling to exotic places or getting married itself. And so they lack the confidence in their capacity to face uncertainty; to develop resilience.
And it carries on through high school and into university where parents are confronting teachers and lecturers about their kids performance and marks…and imposing their own choices and experiences on their children about career paths rather than supporting them in what they want to do.
It’s been said failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat – it’s not fatal nor final. It’s something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing. That’s why some educators today are deliberately creating risks… encouraging kids to go to camps where 3-5 year olds help build a camp fire, cook over it with real tools and climb trees…
Michael Rosen has well-articulated the price we pay if we don’t teach our children how to fail:
In the playground
At the back of our house
There have been some changes.
They said the climbing frame was
So they sawed it down.
They said the paddling pool was
So they drained it dry.
They said the see-saw was
So they took it away.
They said the sandpit was
So they fenced it in.
They said the playground was
So they locked it up.
How do you feel?
The Torah teaches us to build places of safety – fence your pool or your flat-roofed parapet-but it also teaches us to take risks and jump into the Red Sea, enter the wilderness, build a fragile sukkah, believe in a fragile chupah. Maybe when we break the glass at a chuppah we should gather up the fragments, preserve them in their broken-ness and look after the broken pieces instead of gluing them together as some do.
On April 11 2019, “בראשית”/Bereishit came to a horrible “תכלית”/tachlit or end. I’m referring to the Israeli spacecraft Genesis which crash-landed on the moon at a cost of $100 million. I was in Israel shortly after and it was a devastating disappointment, but what really caught my attention was the response in Israel to this failure: President Reuven Rivlin summed it up best at the party at his official residence for some 80 young people passionate about science and space:
“We are full of admiration for the wonderful people who brought the spacecraft to the moon. True, not as we had hoped, but we will succeed in the end. ”And his words were echoed by the S.A billionaire Morris Kahn who put up the money-we’re going to build a new spacecraft and put it on the moon and complete the mission within 3 years.
This has always characterised the Jewish spirit and certainly embodies the audacity of hope that is the state of Israel. The Bereishit may have ended as a broken vessel but it too sent its shards of light into our wounded world.
So on this day of brokenness and especially in these fragile times of pandemic and lockdown, this sacred day on our calendar, we are reminded how you can pick up your broken pieces and start again. Remember Isaac Luria’s ten holy vessels filled with that radiant light… How God sent out those ten vessels, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. Had they all arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. But the vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful, divine light. They broke open, split apart, and all the holy sparks were scattered like sand, like seeds, like stars. We call it שבירתהכלם. Those sparks fell everywhere. And a few days later, God created the world so that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob could gather the holy sparks and retrieved the broken vessels that were dispersed all over the globe. And when enough sparks are collected, the world will be repaired.
This is what the Jewish mission is all about…This is what we,a people well versed in disappointment and devastation, can share with the world during these cold Covid days.
So this Yom Kippur don’t feel defeated by the failures and losses all around.
Rather-Go out and gather the sparks,
find the pieces you can retrieve
the hearts you can touch
the places you can mend.
Gemar Chatimah Tovah