Monday, September 16, 2013

Kol Nidre - What's the Worst that Can Happen? By Rabbi Shira Stutman

What’s the Worst that Can Happen?
-Rabbi Shira Stutman

For those of you who might be considering a career in the rabbinate, here’s what I can tell you: nine months out of the year, it’s a lot of “why don’t you come to this text study? Join me at this service!” and then three months of the year it’s “Why does everyone come out for these three services?” Preparing for the high holy days is among a rabbi’s biggest challenges.

The process is always the same.[1] I begin, of course, with denial. “It’s July! Look how hot it is outside! I have all the time in the world to write my sermons.”

And then it’s no longer July but instead August and I hit stage 2: Anger. Not at myself, dear congregant, not at God, but—and here I’m a little embarrassed—at you. “Is it my fault that you come to services once a year?” No.

Stage three: bargaining. This, I usually do with the gods of the internet. If Google, MyJewishLearning, Tablet, and a few other select locations…if they could just please provide me with the inspiration I need to find something of substance to say. I promise that I won’t even consider recycling something I said two years ago, to see if anyone was listening.

Stage four is a difficult one: Depression. I have nothing to say. I am not worthy of being in front of so many people. There are many rabbis, greater men and women than I will ever be, who should be standing here.

And finally, of course, acceptance. Acceptance takes the longest time, as it begins when I finally sit down and write and delete and write a little more then check Facebook and and pull out a few gray hairs but mostly, just write. And it concludes, really, when I step up to the bima on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur and start to talk.

This year was no different. I complained about the process to my therapist. I thought I was being witty, riffing off Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of mourning. She was not impressed.

“What are you afraid of?” she asked.


What am I afraid of? So many things. Will the sermon be smart enough? Will you laugh at the jokes? Will I be able to make enough pop-culture references that the sermon reads hip but not so many that it reads sophomoric? Will your phones stay in your pockets? Will you remember it an hour later? Is it worth being remembered? Will I succeed? Will I fail?

It’s quite paralyzing, this fear of failure. So many of us, whether it’s because we grew up in money and privilege or because we did not; whether it’s because we are part of the “majority” and are in competition with so many others or because we are part of the “minority” and have something to prove; whether it’s because our parents loved us too much or too little—we all have our excuses and our burdens and our scars. And they carry us far. We can spend the next 15 minutes talking about where this fear of failure comes from—I’m sure that’s what my therapist would like me to do (but not my mother)—but instead I want to talk for a little bit about what to do with failure, with the fear of it, how to grow from it—if at all.

We begin with the Yom Kippur moment in which we find ourselves. What is this holiday if not a mass celebration of failure? I use the word “celebration” purposefully, because Yom Kippur, according to the Talmud, is one of the two happiest days of the Jewish year. Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits explains that this is because
The teshuva (repentance) of Yom Kippur is not some pretense that we will all be perfect tomorrow. We know full well that this will not happen.  Real teshuva is (i) an honest analysis of who we are currently – what we do well and where we fail; (ii) an acceptance that we need to do better and a picture of how we ultimately wish to be when we reach our full potential and (iii) a realistic plan as to how to we can start right now to change a few small things that will set us on the route to achieving that goal. This is the simcha [the joy] of Yom Kippur – honesty about ourselves and the understanding that we really can improve in a slow and healthy step-by-step process. 

Quite a wonderful teaching: real Teshuva is accepting that we failed, knowing that we will do it again, but in the meantime crafting a realistic plan for making a change. And that—not the failure but what comes after—that is simcha, joy, a word usually associated with baby namings and weddings and dancing with the Torah. Failure is nothing more that part of a process of growth.

There are a number of strategies to deal with the aftermath of failure. The simplest one is realizing that you are in good company. I could tell you 100 stories that prove that some of our biggest role models or celebrities came back after massive failure. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team; Harry Potter was rejected by the first 12 publishing houses to which JK Rowling sent it;[2] Steve Jobs, at one point fired as CEO at Apple. Sometimes I read other rabbis’ sermons on the internet in the hopes of feeling better about mine. So-and-so wrote a mediocre sermon a few years ago; he’s still in his job. Schadenfreude—enjoyment derived at the misfortunes of others. It gets me far, but not far enough. I am many things, but not Michael Jordan.

The Torah, especially the book of Genesis, is itself a blueprint of how to come back from failure. God’s first attempt at humanity—failure, with only Noah and his family surviving. The first sibling relationship? Failure, when one brother kills the other. The garden of Eden? Failure.

The difference between Torah and our own lives, however, is that with Torah we get to see the full arc. Yes, it seems like a failure when Joseph gets thrown into the pit. But he rises up, quite literally, to become the Pharaoh’s right-hand man in Egypt, in perfect position to assist the Hebrews during their time of famine. And yes, it seems like a failure when Moses can’t convince Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go after the first, second, third plague—but ultimately, they do get out. It takes 40 years instead of 40 days, but the Israelites ultimately get to the land of Israel.

For us, too, time often can offset the pain of failure. I can draw a direct line from the moment that I was kicked out of the election for president of the Jewish Student Union at Columbia University (true story) and me standing on this bima, leading High Holy Day services today. But it still felt pretty awful when there was an article on the front page of the Columbia Daily Spectator trumpeting my failure. We can make meaning from the missteps, but only time can provide the glasses through which we look to see it.

But in the moment, truth be told, it hurts.

And yet, it is a mistake to see failure as one end of a binary. Either we “fail” or we “succeed”; the quality of a life is based on how much the latter exceeds the former. What Torah does with failure is see it as a stepping-stone to something else, something deeper or smarter or just plain better. “Failure is easy,” writes the writer  Anne Enright. “I do it every day, I have been doing it for years. I have thrown out more sentences than I ever kept…I have wasted whole years writing the wrong things for the wrong people.…[F]ailure is what writers do. It is built in. All this is known. In the long run we are all dead, and none of us is Proust.” We all fail. Not just in the big moments, sermons or presentations or bar exams. We fail all the time.

But what Judaism comes to teach us is that failure is part and parcel of what it means to be human. We fail every day, when we snap at our partners or spend our tzedakah money at Starbucks or take a sentence from another document without citing its source. Ironic that what makes me feel better is not recognizing that I fail rarely but instead that I fail all the time. A few weeks ago I didn’t sleep well so one morning I left the oven on, with my kid alone in the house asleep in his room, when I left for work. Fail. I survived—and my kid did, as well. Do I need to set a safeguard in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again? Yes. Do I need to beat myself up over what could have happened? No—how would that help?

We survive. The only sin is when we don’t learn from our failures, when we repeat them again and again and again without reflection.

Consider the work of Carol Dweck, who writes about fixed mindsets versus growth mindsets. In her amazing book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she differentiates between those who believe that their “successes” are based on innate ability (“fixed” mindset), and those who believe that it’s based on hard work (“growth” mindset). Either your intelligence is fixed  (“you got an ‘A’ on that math test? You’re so smart!”) or it can grow (“you got an ‘A on that math test? You studied so hard for it!”). She writes that

[i]n a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.[3]

One easy way to tell if someone has a growth or fixed mindset is to witness how she responds to failure. A fixed-mindset person despises failure, because it means that it’s a statement on who they are and who they always will be, while a growth-mindset person sees the failure as regrettable but also a learning opportunity for the future. Fixed-mindset failures are an opportunity to feel shame; growth-mindset failures are an opportunity to feel disappointment but learn for the future.

Now shame—that’s a topic for a different sermon altogether. But here’s the teaser: the difference between shame and guilt is simple. Say you find yourself gossiping about a colleague. If you feel guilt, you recognize you’ve done something wrong. If you feel shame, you recognize that you’ve done something wrong, and think that makes you a bad person at your core. One of the key elements to failing well is to feel guilt but not shame. That, too, is a process for many of us.

We learn in the Talmud that
 אין אדם עומד על דברי תורה אלא אם כן נכשל בהן,
(Gittin 43a), “a person does not fully understand a Torah teaching until he or she has been tripped up by them.” The phrase is brought to bear as Rabbah b. Rav Huna acknowledges that he made a mistake in interpreting a piece of Torah law. The ancient rabbis understood that we cannot really learn something until we have failed to understand it correctly the first time. I try to imagine that in a contemporary court of law: “Your honor, you may have noticed that I applied this law incorrectly the first time. I’d like to try again, and know you will think more highly of me for doing so.” The tradition understands what those of us stuck in the fixed mindset do not; failure, while sometimes quite awful, can also be a type of feedback. Our job after any sort of failure is not to collapse in the fetal position but instead to say, “what can I learn so I can do differently next time?”

Failure is part of what it means to be a human. Noam Zion teaches that

For the Kabbalist[s], failure is built into the very fabric of existence. One of the least understood and most radical dimensions of Kabbalistic teaching is the model of a God who cannot seem to get it right the first time around.

…[I]n Renaissance Kabbalah, the primary image of creation is God forcing emanating light into vessels. The flawed vessels are unable to hold the light streaming into them from the divine emanation. They shatter. Shards of vessels fall and disperse throughout reality. Many of the shards retain sparks of light. The purpose of existence is to gather the sparks of light…and reintegrate them with their divine source.

What is essential in this kabbalistic image is the centrality of failure. God tries to create the world. It doesn't work because the vessels shatter. Our whole lives are then spent trying to return to the original pristine state before the vessels shattered, the only difference being that this time when we return, we are humbler, wiser and able to transcend even the initial perfection with which we began.

We are imitators of divinity. We participate in divinity. Just as God stood on the abyss of darkness and said, "Let there be light," so do we stand on the abyss of darkness and say, "Let there be light." Just as God failed in his creative gesture yet reached deep within to find the love to create again, so do we.

In the end, the best we can do is the best we can do. Acknowledging that the potential for failure is always present, that we will fail every single day—and that’s okay—is one of the most powerful teachings of this High Holy Day season. In our lives, in our relationships, in our work. I have given this sermon, it might have been mediocre. And if I give too many mediocre sermons, you may walk away from Judaism, or I may lose my job. And yet—with a dose of humility, and a dose of learned wisdom, I will fall and God willing, I will rise again. That is true of all of us, every day. You will fail, too. Sometimes it will be minor, as when you throw an aluminum can in the trash. Sometimes it could be much, much larger. But we will learn, and grow, from our failures. What’s the worst that could happen?

[1] In gratitude to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, from whom these “stages” are most obviously cribbed.
[3] Carol Dweck, as cited here

No comments:

Post a Comment