If you died today, would you consider your life a success or a failure? How do you measure success and failure?
In Parshat Chukkat, Moses learns that he will never enter the Land of Israel. The Israelites encamp in Kadesh in the Wilderness of Tzin and there Miriam dies. The well that for her sake has followed the Israelites through the wilderness for nearly four decades disappears. The Israelites revert to their default behavior: they complain to Moses and imagine Egypt the fertile garden spot of the world that they were forced to leave. God tells him to bring forth water from the rock at Meribah – the very same rock he spoke to much earlier in the Israelites’ journey (Exodus 17:1-7) with success. This time, as before, God tells him:
“You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” (Numbers 20:8)Moses, however, is angry with the people. He takes his staff and strikes the rock. Okay, so Moses doesn’t achieve the goal of providing water in precisely the way God prescribed. Who wouldn’t be mad?
And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:11, 12)Moses has endured 40 years of sacrifice, suffering, dangers, and hardships for Israel’s sake. They have spent much of the last forty years kvetching and rebelling. Wouldn’t you lose your temper on occasion?
What must Moses feel upon hearing this harsh verdict? Moses – the quintessential leader, prophet, and for our Sages, rabbi, is in this moment a failure. Success has eluded him.
Or has it?
What makes a life successful? Many of us struggle with discerning whether we are successes or failures. Perhaps that is why so much that is said about success and failure is rather cynical. Here’s a sampler:
The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made. (Jean Giraudoux)What does it mean to live a successful life? What does it mean for you to have lived a successful life? We live in a society that plies and pumps us with images of success that are conceived on Madison Avenue and manufactured in Hollywood. They are far from realistic.
Nothing succeeds like the appearance of success. (Christopher Lasch)
All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure. (Mark Twain)
Nothing fails like success. (Gerald Nachman)
Why be a man when you can be a success? (Bertolt Brecht)
We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like? (Jean Cocteau)
No one’s life is unalloyed joy and success, of course, and most people do not receive the recognition, or feel the appreciation, they deserve. Sadly, what has gone wrong, or failed to go as planned, often looms large in our eyes – crowding out memories of our many achievements. But perhaps in addition to recognizing that everyone’s life entails failure, and that failures do not define our overall worth, we might do well to consider the “fringe benefits of failure.”
In June of 2008, J. K. Rowling delivered the Commencement Address at Harvard University. (You can read the transcript and view the video on line.) After noting her own colossal failures – “I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless” – Rowling provides sage advice on the blessing of failure.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.The great philosopher Mickey Rooney said: “You always pass failure on the way to success.” Perhaps Theodore Roosevelt put it more eloquently: “Far better it is 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 the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
In his last hours, as he trod up Mt. Nebo, Moses may well have pondered his many failures. I’d like to think that he recognized that failure comes with the territory of living. I hope his failures did not overshadow his remarkable successes.
It is not the “great” and “glorious” things that make our lives a success. It is the accumulation of “little” things – the people we have loved, the good we have done, the difference we have made. How many of these came because of what we learned from failures?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman