Sermon: Shabbat Vayeilech – On Failing

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 1 October 2022

“Oh god, I hate this pen”.

In among the pomp and ceremony, a moment that went a little awry. A leaking pen. A flash of frustration. A tired, mourning man in his 70s cracking just a little. In the circumstances, ‘Oh God I hate this pen’ was perhaps quite a mild outburst.

Yet, to some, this brief moment was something more: “His mother wouldn’t have reacted like that,” “This is his true character,” “Not suitable to be king”. Even this morning, with everything else going on in the world, the Times cartoon is a play on this, apparently defining, moment, impossible to escape.

Never mind the hours of dignified blandness, or the emotion and the exhaustion. How dare he be, well a tiny bit imperfect.

Meanwhile, two minor celebrities are never to be forgiven for cutting into a queue. Maybe. Over 75,000 people have signed a petition demanding that they lose their jobs. One of them is, apparently, now not suitable even to advertise the purchase of used cars.

These are very modern stories.
In the amateur dramatics of social media, the clipping of video to be preserved and shared for all eternity, in the artificial high drama of public shaming, we are forever to be surrounded by ‘memento culpa’ – reminders of our worst moments.

We have come to be defined by the moments of imperfection: by the times in which we express ourselves most clumsily; by our failures, our mistakes, our omissions.
These become who we are, rather than simply evidence of our humanity.

This is not how our tradition understands it.

Take this morning’s portion. God declares to Moses that the people will go astray, that they will break the Covenant. This may feel deeply pessimistic. We might well feel for Joshua, destined to lead a people who will fail him.

But the inevitability of the people’s straying can be seen another way. As a sign of their humanity.

God doesn’t expect them not to fail because failing is part of life. Joshua has to understand the reality of leadership – that those you lead are going to do things you might not like.

God says, “I know how flawed you are. Even with Moses in your midst, you have been trouble. How much more so in the future. And, yes, we will be estranged. But that estrangement does not mean you cease to be My people. Ultimately, you are defined not by this failure but by our relationship, by your return to Me.”

This is, perhaps, the core message of this period in the Jewish year, too. In the heart of the Yom Kippur liturgy, just before the Vidui Zuta, the shorter acrostic confession which begins Ashamnu, we declare to God and to those around us:
“Ein anachnu azzei fanim u’k’shei oref” – “we are not so arrogant and obstinate” that we could claim “tzadikim anachnu v’lo chatanu” – “we are the truly righteous and have not erred”.

Because we have. Of course we have. The cycle of reflection and renewal that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offers feels so valuable because we are destined to mess up. We are certain of doing so, because we are human beings, ‘the crooked timber of humanity” as the philosopher Kant put it.

This truth feels like it has been lost in a world that has become increasingly unforgiving of failure and imperfection.

There is a beautiful book by the English cultural historian, Joe Moran, published a couple of years ago, called ‘If You Should Fail: Why success eludes us and why it doesn’t matter’.
Moran challenges some of the ways of understanding human failing that have come to dominate in the modern world.

He bemoans the fact that we can now bear failing as a society only if it is a prelude to succeeding. Without that outcome, it is not to be countenanced. Talking about failure, he observes, is so often the domain only of those who can then claim to have succeeded – there is a set narrative: failure makes perfect, failure only ‘defeats us’ if we are ‘losers’. What he calls ‘the wishful thinking of alchemy, where the base metal of failure always turns onto golden accomplishment.’

Moran encourages us rather to accept the reality of our inevitable failures, to acknowledge our moments of imperfection for what they are – and to find solace within them.

And most importantly – to understand that these do not define us. We are more than either our successes or our failures. Prior to the late nineteenth century, he observes, no-one would ever have been described as ‘a failure’. A failure was a moment. Failure was, to quote American historian Scott Sandage, ‘An incident not an identity’. Only in modernity does failure come to define.

“To call any life a failure or a success,” Moran writes later in the work, “Is to miss the infinite granularity, the inexhaustible miscellaneity of all lives… each life runs along its own tracks to its own destination. A life can’t really succeed or fail at all; it can only be lived”.

This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t care, that we shouldn’t aspire, that we shouldn’t, in the language of our tradition, make Teshuvah, return. But it is to acknowledge that we are not destined to be ‘failures’, rather we are – all of us – human beings who fail.

If this is true, and surely it is, it demands of us that we act differently; that we think differently about those around us, and about ourselves.
That we not jump to judgement in the way of modern media. But rather, remember instead the Jewish ideal of Dan L’Chaf Zechut – literally to judge according to a scale of merit – not to automatically assume and assert the worst. As the commentator Rashi puts it, ‘On everything that you hear about a person, say that they intended for good, until you know with certainty that it is not so.’

For it is not the failing that defines but what we do with it, however bad it seems: Nachman of Bratslav, the 18th/19th century Hasidic rabbi, wrote: ‘Even someone who might seem completely wicked – It is necessary to search and find in him some modicum of good; that in that little bit he is not wicked. By finding in him a modicum of good and judging him favourably, one elevates him to the scale of merit and can bring him to change.”

And just as imperfection is not what we should allow to define others, it also can’t be what we allow to define ourselves – again to quote Nachman of Bratslav, ‘We must judge ourselves favourably and find some remaining good point, in order to give ourselves the strength to avoid falling completely’.

We live in a world of instant and extreme judgement, in which our worst moments stay with us for our lifetimes, preserved on our phones, and inescapable as they are, also deep in our souls.
We have lost sight of the important truth. That these moments are just parts of our lives, the infinite granularity as Moran put it. They are not the only things that define us.

Our tradition asks something different of us. That we recognise our shared humanity, that we acknowledge that we are all in a cycle of sin and return, of failing and getting back up, of messing up and making up. God says to Moses and to Joshua that the people will fail for failure is inevitable; we cannot say, at least not seriously, that ‘we are the truly righteous and have not erred”.
Which makes a demand of us – that we find a little bit of forgiveness; that we exercise moderation in our judgement, that we recognise that our worst moments and our mistakes are not who we are.

This is true of kings, of celebrities, of family and friends. And it is also true of ourselves.