Tag Archives: Parashah

The Lessons of Failure

Few of us like tests. However, what if your child comes home from school and tells you that he has the greatest science teacher this year — he’s too busy to grade tests, so there won’t be any tests the whole year! Likely, you’d be heading for the phone to call the principal. Why? Tests ensure that your child pays attention to the material, does the assignments and achieves the ultimate that he can achieve in the subject. No tests, the child will likely slack off and learn little.

However, when WE get a test in life — be it health, economic, interpersonal — we ask “Why is this happening to me?” Why does the Almighty send us a test? Because He loves us and He wants us to get the most out of life, to develop ourselves and our character, to have the greatest life possible and to achieve our potential. The Talmud tells us that the Almighty does not send us a test that we cannot handle.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
from the Shabbat Shalom Weekly commentary on Torah Portion Ve’eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35)
Aish.com

So the Talmud says that the Almighty does not send a test the person being tested cannot handle. I’ve heard something similar in Christian circles and I’m not sure I agree with either source. I think there are plenty of Christians and Jews (and lots of others) who have encountered horrifying experiences that completely overwhelmed them.

How many Jews didn’t survive the Holocaust, and even of those who lived, how many did not survive with their emotional and physical health intact?

While I don’t believe Christians are persecuted in the United States, there are plenty in other countries run by oppressive and anti-Christian regimes where Christians are beaten, tortured, raped, and murdered for their faith. Sure, just like in examples of Holocaust survivors, we hear miraculous testimonies from Christians who have been terrifically brutalized, but who endured nonetheless with their faith and other facilities remaining whole.

But what about the stories we’ll never hear because they’re unpopular, of Jews and Christians who were totally broken by these tests and trials, those who never recovered, those who lost faith?

What about things that we don’t see as persecution? What of the Christian father who loses his five-year old little girl in a car accident and turns to alcohol instead of God? What about the Jewish mother whose baby boy dies of SIDS and she responds by ceasing to ever again speak to Hashem in prayer?

God provides the tests, but their’s no guarantee we’ll pass.

failureWhat happens when we fail? I don’t think Rabbi Packouz’s commentary is very helpful here:

How do you know it’s a test? If it’s hard. Test are tailored made for each individual. It may be hard for one person, but not for another. Know that the choice you make will determine whether you get closer to reaching your potential or further away. Think back to a difficult situation. Beforehand you might have thought that you couldn’t handle it, yet you did — and you grew tremendously from it. We only grow from that which is difficult and challenging. We draw upon something inside of us that we didn’t know we had.

That’s assuming we have whatever it takes inside in the first place. But then there’s this:

People think that they are being punished with bad things. The Torah teaches us that ultimate reward and punishment are not in this world, but in the next world, the World to Come (Mesilat Yesharim, Path of the Just, ch.1). In this world, it is not punishment; He’s teaching you a lesson, giving you a message. If you gave tzedakah (charity) and your stocks went up — it’s not a reward, but a message that you are using your money properly and here’s more to use wisely. Likewise, if you misused your wealth and your stocks declined.

It is important to understand that what happens to you may be bitter, painful, but it is not necessarily bad. It depends on how you view what happens and how you respond to it. Bad is what takes you away from a connection with the Almighty.

The flip side is what happens when something good happens to us, something really good? Imagine you win the lottery and win big. Suddenly, you’re set for life. You now can devote much more time and resources to charity, prayer, and Bible study because you don’t have to work, you can hire others to clean your house and take care of your yard, and free you from all the “ordinary” tasks in life.

Just like “bad” tests, “good” tests don’t always have the desired result.

“But Jeshurun grew fat and kicked—
You are grown fat, thick, and sleek—
Then he forsook God who made him,
And scorned the Rock of his salvation.

“They made Him jealous with strange gods;
With abominations they provoked Him to anger.

“They sacrificed to demons who were not God,
To gods whom they have not known,
New gods who came lately,
Whom your fathers did not dread.

“You neglected the Rock who begot you,
And forgot the God who gave you birth.”

Deuteronomy 32:15-18 (NASB)

moses mount neboJust as in difficult tests, there’s no promise we will respond as God desires when He makes life easier for us, there’s no guarantee we’ll come closer to Him either.

I hate tests. I’m not very good at them, at least the ones Hashem provides. It’s disappointing. I sometimes wish for things that would make my life easier, at least from my point of view, rather than having to endure all of God’s “tests.” All this occurred to me again as I was pouring a cup of coffee this morning in an effort to wake up my brain.

It also occurred to me that, just like the test a young student has to take in school, what I receive or don’t receive from God is for my own (ultimate) good, even if I don’t see it that way. If I don’t win the lottery, for example, while that means I still have to work and struggle to save for an eventual retirement, there is something “good” about that. I don’t know what it is, but God must.

And of all the tests Hashem puts in my path that I find uncomfortable or even downright painful, even though I don’t see the “good” in them, it must be there. I have to believe that if I have faith and trust in God. Otherwise, life is just random and meaningless and we have no support from God when we suffer…we simply suffer.

How empty and vain a life is that?

But it’s not easy. Rabbi Packouz teaches us what we learn when we pass a test, but what do we learn when we fail?

Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.

-Napoleon Hill

Our best successes often come after our greatest disappointments.

-Henry Ward Beecher

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

-Theodore Roosevelt

You can Google “failure quotes” and find a seemingly endless supply of inspirational statements about learning from failure. Of course, the quotes of famous people don’t necessarily reflect the viewpoint of God on the matter.

Having arrested Him, they led Him away and brought Him to the house of the high priest; but Peter was following at a distance. After they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter was sitting among them. And a servant-girl, seeing him as he sat in the firelight and looking intently at him, said, “This man was with Him too.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know Him.” A little later, another saw him and said, “You are one of them too!” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” After about an hour had passed, another man began to insist, saying, “Certainly this man also was with Him, for he is a Galilean too.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” Immediately, while he was still speaking, a rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Luke 22:54-62

peters-denialPeter’s failure. But it wasn’t the end, even though the failure was great.

So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.”  He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.

John 21:15-17

Rav Yeshua gave Peter (Kefa) another chance to show how he loved his Master. Peter recovered from his failure and recovered well.

But Peter, along with John, fixed his gaze on him and said, “Look at us!” And he began to give them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!” And seizing him by the right hand, he raised him up; and immediately his feet and his ankles were strengthened. With a leap he stood upright and began to walk; and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God; and they were taking note of him as being the one who used to sit at the Beautiful Gate of the temple to beg alms, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

Acts 3:4-10

This is just one small example of Peter the empowered Apostle and the result of his recovery from failure. He’d never be perfect and sometimes he’d make mistakes, but he never denied his Master again.

But what about us? We could attribute Peter’s boldness to his having received the Holy Spirit in the Acts 2 as opposed to his deliberately choosing to pass God’s tests rather than fail them. He was an Apostle full of the Holy Spirit of God. What about us? What about we poor, dim, ordinary human beings?

As Acts 10 attests, we Gentile Yeshua Talmidei are also supposed to possess the Spirit of the Almighty. Where is our greatness? Why aren’t we like the Apostles? What’s the difference between them and us?

Why do we continue to fail, what does that mean, and what do we learn, if anything at all?

The Torah states:

“And Pharaoh sent word and summoned Moses and Aaron. He said to them, ‘I have sinned this time. The Almighty is righteous. I and my people are wicked! … I will let you leave. You will not be delayed again.’ ”

Shortly thereafter, Pharaoh refused to let them leave.

Why did Pharaoh change his mind once the pressure of the plague was removed? Rabbi Noson Tzvi Finkel of the Mir Yeshiva explained that Pharaoh viewed suffering as a punishment. That is why he said, “The Almighty is a righteous judge and His punishment is fair because I have done evil.”

The reality is that there is a strong element of kindness in the suffering that the Almighty sends to us. In part, it is a divine message that we have something to improve. The goal of suffering is to motivate a person to improve his behavior. Pharaoh viewed suffering only as a punishment. Therefore, as soon as the punishment was over, he changed his mind and refused to let them leave.

Our lesson: View suffering as a means to elevate yourself and you will find meaning in your suffering. Try to accept it with love and appreciation. Even though there is still pain involved, it is much easier to cope. Whenever you find yourself suffering, ask yourself, “How can I use this as a tool for self-improvement?”

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Commentary on Torah Portion Va’eira
from Growth Through Torah

runI think that’s what we learn from failure. If we see our failures as a punishment from God or some sort of inherent quality in ourselves we can never overcome, we will continue to fail. If, however, we choose to consider our failures as tests, they point to the areas in our lives where we need to improve. They show us a target to aim at, a goal to achieve, they illuminate a sort of “finish line” in a race.

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3

We fail, but as long as we persevere and do not give up, we will never be defeated.

I know, easier said than done, but as people of faith, every time we are knocked down, we must either get up again, dust ourselves off, and keep moving forward, or we surrender our faith, give up on God, and go off in our own direction, becoming truly lost.

Passing God’s tests strengthens us, brings us closer to God, and shows us that God has built within us more persistence and empowerment than we realized we had. In fact, without tests, we’d never know just who God has made us to be. Even if we fail and fail often, as long as we keep trying, we never lose our way or step off the path God has placed before us.

Even in abject failure, abandoned by everyone we ever thought loved us, we are never alone.

When you have nothing left but God, you become aware that God is enough.

―A. Maude Royden

May this always be true of each of us.

Drawing Near

Kohen GadolThe name of this week’s Torah reading, Korach, provokes an obvious question: It is written: “The name of the wicked shall rot,” and on this basis, our Sages state that a person should not be named after a wicked man. Why then is an entire Torah reading named Korach? For with this title, Korach’s identity is perpetuated forever, since the Torah is eternal.

Among the explanations given is that Korach’s desire was, in essence, positive. Korach wanted to be a High Priest, to experience the absolute closeness with G-d that results from entry into the Holy of Holies. Indeed, when Moshe responded to Korach, he did not tell him this objective was unworthy. On the contrary, as Rashi relates, Moshe said he shared the same desire; he also wanted to be a High Priest.

Moreover, at Mount Sinai, G-d told the Jewish people that they are “a kingdom of priests,” and our Rabbis interpret this to refer to the level attained by a High Priest.

Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of Torah
“Korach’s Positive Import”
Chabad.org

A third gentile wanted to convert so he could become the High Priest, and wear the Priestly garments. Shammai said no, but Hillel accepted him. After studying, he realized that even David, the King of Israel, did not qualify as a cohen, not being a descendant of Aaron…Hillel’s welcoming personality complements his saying: “Love people and bring them close to Torah.” (Avoth 1).

from -Hillel, Shammai and the Three Converts
Saratogachabad.com
citing Shabbos 31

“My job is not to distance anyone, but to draw them closer. If a person needs to be rebuked, let someone else take care of that.”

-from a letter of the Rebbe
quoted by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Bringing Closer”
Chabad.org

I write a lot about praying, about reading Talmud, Chasidic stories, the Bible; and I write a lot about living out the life that God gave us, not just praying, reading, and studying. But what’s the point? Why do we do this? Why do I do this?

Why did the convert in the story about Hillel want to be a High Priest?

The motives are all the same. We want to draw closer to God. Even Korach, the subject of this week’s Torah Portion is said to have had good motives, though a bad way of expressing them. We all want to draw closer to God.

But what does that mean? I’m not sure anyone really knows.

What would we do if we were really close to God? You probably think you know the answer. You probably think it would the the most wonderful, peaceful, loving experience of your entire life. But do you know what you’re really asking for?

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” –Exodus 20:18-20

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. –Revelation 1:17-18

Do not be afraid? Are you crazy? who wouldn’t be afraid?

Sure, Abraham spoke with God “face-to-face” and Moses talked with God at the top of Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights, but that was Abraham and Moses. The Bible doesn’t relate tales of every one who encounters God having a perfectly comfortable and casual conversation and in fact, in the two scriptures from which I just quoted, we see that the more typical response of a meeting with the Divine was to expect to die in the next second or two. Why do we want to get closer to God?

We think we want to get closer to God when we imagine God is some sort of “cosmic teddy bear” who is all comfy and cozy and we can sit on His lap like kids telling Santa Claus what we want for Christmas. But it doesn’t work that way as we’ve seen in abundant measure. So why do we want to grow closer to God, abandoning all common sense and reason, desiring to have such an intimate and terrifying experience?

In Jewish mysticism, it’s believed that we contain a spark of the Divine; something of God, within each of us. That spark is always striving to return to the source. It’s like trying to hold a beach ball underwater in a swimming pool; the more you try to drive it downward, the more it pushes back toward the surface. The more darkness we pour into our being, the more sorrow and sin we find in the world, the more the Holy fire within us seeks out the conflagration of God.

From this life and light proceeds the divine “spark” which is hidden in every soul. Not all men succeed in rising to this close union with God at prayer, because this spark is imprisoned in them. “Yea, even the Shechinah herself is imprisoned in us, for the spark is the Shechinah in our souls.

-Paul Philip Levertoff
Love and the Messianic Age

Ezekiel's VisionIn yesterday’s morning meditation, I said that meeting God requires our “time, effort, and an unquenchable need to learn“. It’s that unquenchable, insatiable, unstoppable drive; like a spark seeking the fire, that pushes us forward, over the edge of the abyss, sometimes without our conscious will, pressing us across the threshold from our familiar world into the Presence of the Throne of God. This is what drives mystics to leave the universe and seek higher Heavens in vision and in spirit. This is what we see in the Merkabah or the Ezekiel’s chariot event and this is what John experienced in the vision he recorded in Revelation. Daniel’s visions all but drove him insane.

Most of us won’t have such intense encounters with God, but we seek something of Him nonetheless. It’s why we pray. It’s way we read the Bible. It’s why we study Talmud and Kabbalah. It’s why, night after night, we seek Him in our dreams and day after day, we call to Him to be with us along our way.

You shall teach them diligently to your children and you shall speak of them, while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire, and when you arise. –Deuteronomy 6:7

This small portion of the Shema is part of what Jesus taught as one of the two greatest commandments; the commandments that are the “containers” for all of the Torah and the Prophets. Perhaps this is a clue telling us how we draw closer to God.

We know that Korach’s intentions were good, but intentions are not nearly as meaningful as the actions we take. His actions ultimately cost the lives of over 14,000 people. And while the actions of the convert who approached Hillel with the desire to become High Priest didn’t result in tragedy, he still was given the opportunity to learn a hard lesson in what it means to draw nearer to God.

Interestingly, the letter from the Rebbe quoted by Rabbi Freeman seems to speak somewhat of Hillel who, unlike his contemporary Shammai, did not rebuke the foolishness of the three converts but rather, welcomed them and gave them the time and the room to discover their mistakes. We make our own mistakes in trying to draw nearer to God. A lot of the errors we make have to do with arrogant presumption and the idea that the life, death, and life of Jesus Christ turned God the Father from a horrible, vengeful creature into everybody’s favorite uncle. Fortunately, God, like Hillel, gives us time and room to discover our errors.

It’s in our sincere attempts to encounter God that we actually discover when we’re walking the wrong path. Like Moses who saw only God’s “back” but not His “face”, when we’re ready, we realize just how vast and overwhelming even a momentary glimpse of God’s awesome glory is when it breaks into our world. However, to meet with God, we must make our humble efforts to seek Him out, in the pages of the Bible, in the halls of study, in the realms of prayer…and then we must wait.

From a mystic perspective, it is explained that Korach’s desires reflected the spiritual heights to be reached in the Era of the Redemption…The rewards of that age cannot, however, be attained prematurely, but only as a result of our Divine service. It is only through our selfless devotion to the Torah of Moshe and the directives of “the extension of Moshe in every generation” the Torah leaders of our people that we can elevate ourselves and the world to the point that “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d.”

-Rabbi Touger

Good Shabbos.