Learning from Failing
March 18, 2022
Our third book of the Torah, the Book of Leviticus, has always been a bit of an enigma. The Torah begins its first two books with a great narrative story of wonders and miracles, family dynamics, and geopolitics. However, when we arrive at Leviticus, we are introduced to a handbook on how to live life, and this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, highlights this literary style.
Tzav, meaning “Command,” is an account of how the people will need to perform their sacrifices for all their future sins. No longer is the narrative about what the people have or have not done, now the text is about how we are to live a just and moral life, and this week specifically it is about what to do when we fail… because we will.
It might be easy at first to sense a tinge of pessimism in one’s reading of this text because of the expectation that the people will be at fault. The two previous books detailed the stories of our great ancestors, which very clearly highlighted their imperfections. Yet that was about them, this new book is about us, and lest we imagine that somehow Darwinian evolution has brought us to a state of perfection, Tzav reminds us that we are not yet there.
While reading this week’s parshah I am reminded of my previous career working with children in the school setting. Too often teachers would complain about the children’s lack of motivation. Variations of, “How can we light that fire within them?” were discussed in the teachers’ lounge, staff meetings, and performance reviews. “Why is s/he not trying their hardest?” “Why are they holding back?” Were questions that highlighted the children’s perceived lack of effort.
However, what I came to understand, and what Tzav is teaching us this week, is that we need to simply accept that we will fail, that we need to fall in order to learn how to get up so that we will be stronger, more resilient, and better experienced to grow and move forward.
Our children, and many adults, are not giving it their all because of their fear of failure. “If I hold back and am unsuccessful,” the students think, “then I will always have the excuse that I didn’t try my hardest, because if I would have tried harder then I wouldn’t have failed.”
One of the greatest expressions I was ever able to share with my students was that “Failing did not make you a failure!” I would simply share about how a toddler, when they are learning to walk and they take their first step, would in fact technically “fail” at walking. It was the adults around them who clapped, cheered, and jumped with joy at the infant’s first attempts that generated the courage to try it again, and again, and again. Failing taught them how to succeed.
We live in a time when simple failures, unfortunately, carry grave and disproportionate consequences, which therefore stop us from owning our failures and either hiding them (which creates other consequences) or simply not trying hard enough. However, Tzav is Gd’s way of reminding us, not only as the individual, but also as the collective community, it’s ok to make mistakes. Tzav literally is saying, here is the manual, here is the guidebook, and here are the methods on what to do when you do demonstrate your human imperfection.
The world is an imperfect place, and there are definitely things for which we should hold people accountable. But there are also endless “mini successes,” like those first toddler steps for which we should jump for joy, celebrate, and get excited about in order to move us forward together.
This week, I challenge us all to look for the mini successes around us or maybe even attempt to fail at something. Let’s get together and support one another through this week’s parshah that reminds us that failing does not make us a failure because we are…