Honoring our FailuresRead Now
Rabbi Shira Wallach and Rabbi Adam Roffman
Yom Kippur 5780
Shira: Dear Hannah, my precious first born: I hope that you’ve been holding onto this letter for a good long while. And now that you’re finally reading it, I trust it means that God granted us the gift of a long time together, in which I had the opportunity to watch you and your sister grow into the strong, compassionate, curious, loving women that we always knew you would be. We shared a lot of meaningful conversations throughout our lives, moments in which our souls encountered one another. I heard you learn to articulate yourself with wisdom and insight beyond your years, and I hope that you always felt heard and validated. But as I took stock of the ideas we often broached together, I realized that there were things left unsaid.
Adam: Dear Rebecca: I pray that despite the grief and sadness you’re feeling, that opening this letter and seeing how long it is has brought a little bit of a smile to your face. After spending so many years watching me go on and on and on in front of a crowd at important moments in people’s lives, you must have known, of course, there’s no way I’d pass up the opportunity, at this moment of transition, to write one last sermon for you. Without a doubt, you and your sister were the greatest sources of pride in my life. And despite the tough road that we sometimes put in front of you, I hope that you were proud to be my daughter. But we both know that there were many times when I could have done better.
Shira: As rabbis, it was so important to your father and me to project success—because our success represented the success of our Jewish community and of the Jewish people. But just like everyone else in my generation, I was guilty of editing my story so that people only saw the happy times, the times when it looked like we were in control and everything was going great. When I was your age, we had this thing called Facebook, which was created for that very purpose.
Adam: Failure was not a word we used a lot in our house. Your mom and I never wanted you to feel defeated by missed opportunities or ill-advised decisions. We never wanted you to hear us admit that we had failed, because we didn’t want you to carry the burden of our mistakes with you. But what I realize now is that this too was a mistake. Because, ultimately, what we came to understand was that our success was, very often, predicated on remembering our failures and learning from them.
Shira: Judaism is the most enduring success story in human history. We survived as a people for 4000 years despite the persecutions, the exiles, the destructions, and the threat of losing our identity to the cultures that surrounded us. But if you look closer, you’ll see that we’ve had to admit to and own our failures many, many times over the generations. Only then could we undertake the soul searching necessary to earn our place as a light unto the nations, or lagoyim.
The book of Genesis tells us where we came from: three generations of patriarchs and matriarchs who were courageous and tenacious in their steadfast faith in God, but as parents and siblings, not so much. Abraham basically tried to murder his son on the top of some mountain without consulting with his wife—by the way, for the record, whenever I wanted to murder you, I always ran it by your father first. Isaac, at the end of his life, was blind and impotent, outsmarted by his younger son Jacob who stole the blessing he meant to give to his elder, Esav, and Rebecca not only allowed this manipulation, but gave Jacob this idea in the first place! Not exactly the Partridge Family (sorry, you won’t get that reference. Actually, that part was your dad’s idea. I’m also too young to get this).
Adam: At the end of Jacob’s life, after being reunited with his long-lost son Joseph in Egypt, Pharaoh asks him a simple question—how old are you? —and Jacob gives a very revealing answer. “I am 130,” Jacob replies. “Few and hard have been the years of my life, and they cannot compare to the lifespans of my ancestors during their travels.” What he’s trying to say is this: Here I stand, at long last, beside a son I thought was dead, as he stands at the right-hand of one of the most powerful people in the world. I should feel like shouting from the rooftops! And yet, I can’t dismiss the profound failure in my life that has led to this moment.
We are called B’nai Yisrael, the children of Jacob, not Abraham or Isaac. Why? Because like Jacob, we admit that there were times when we struggled with the angels and lost. But also, like our namesake, we have seen that on the other side of that struggle, was forgiveness, kindness, redemption, and unparalleled success.
Shira: Like Jacob and his descendants, who came down to Egypt seeking sustenance during a time of scarcity, our ancestors came to this country, famished and diminished from years of hardship, only to build their own versions of the American Dream. The story we inherited from our grandparents and our great-grandparents is remarkably similar to that of the 70 who came down to Egypt: incredible resilience in the face of obstacles that most in our generation never had to overcome. Starting out as poor peddlers on the streets, they sold their wares to eke out a meager existence for their families, but within a generation, they owned their own department stores, grocery chains, scrap metal businesses, you name it. The path to success was a straight line to the top.
And because we’ve had to reinvent ourselves so many times in order to survive, we don’t talk about our failures. Just like your father and I always had to project success in the microcosm of the communities we served, it’s not difficult to imagine why our people always had to hold ourselves to impossibly high standards: so that we’d never have to admit defeat, so that we’d never be targeted by the rest of the world for our shortcomings. So that we wouldn’t fall victim to the paralysis of fear. We couldn’t afford to fail.
But as powerful as these stories are, they are incomplete. Of course there were times when our forebearers made wrong decisions that led to loss of friends, money, security, and power. And though those stories of failure may not have reached us, or may not have been spoken about with the same sense of pride, nonetheless, I’m sure they played a central role in shaping the journey that led to their ultimate triumph over adversity.
Adam: You know that one of my favorite things to talk about from the pulpit is that the rabbinate was my second career, that I spent several years after graduating from college in training to be a musical theater actor in New York. I so often spoke, longingly, about what I gained from that period in my life and how my training as an actor informed my work as a rabbi. But I don’t think I ever told you this story of the exact moment I knew that I was never going to make it as a professional actor.
Once, after a train wreck of an audition, ruined by a terrible accompanist, I collected my things, and walked back out into the crowded New York city streets and stood there, staring into space for maybe 20 minutes. I had been dragging myself to audition after audition and, no matter how well they went, I just wasn’t getting anywhere. I was leaving each one feeling worse than I had felt walking through the door.
I went into the theater business thinking I would find community, companionship, meaning and connection. But the life of an actor, even for the successful ones, is often one of isolation and merciless competition. In order to succeed, you have to be CEO of a one-man company, to constantly sell and promote yourself and make yourself heard above the hundreds and hundreds of voices often competing for the same job. Standing there that day, alone in a sea of people on the streets of Manhattan, I thought to myself, “I just can’t do this.” But then, almost immediately, I realized, “Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do something with this.”
Community, companionship, meaning, connection—surely, somewhere in my life, I had found all of these things together in one place. It was the crucible of that failure that clarified for me what I was really looking for. And one year later, I had enrolled as a student at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem on my way to Rabbinical School.
Shira: Over the course of his life, I watched your father tear himself down and build himself back up more times than I can count. And each time he emerged closer to the rabbi he wanted to be, the father he wanted to be, the person he wanted to be. With renewed energy, creativity, and a sense of purpose, he found focus and clarity about where he wanted to go next. And by the time you were born, that’s the man that you saw and came to love. But at the most difficult moments, I would often remind him of one of my favorite rabbinic teachings about the creation of the world.
The Torah tells us that God commands light to come into existence, and the cosmos responds immediately and with perfection. But the Torah only transmits to us the story of God’s success. Only the wisdom of the rabbis fills in what’s so often missing from these narratives: that God created and destroyed a thousand worlds, failing each time to come up with just the right combination of forces and elements, until finally God created this one. What the rabbis understood is that even God couldn’t create the world without trying and failing. And the only way God could learn enough to bring the version that we know into existence was to try and fail all those times before.
Adam: As a people, how many times have we Jews remade ourselves after a national catastrophe? How many times have we rebirthed ourselves after suffering loss, destruction, or losing our way? When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE, we faced what should have been the end of the story of the Jewish people. The Temple was the center of our lives, spiritually, economically, and nationally and suddenly, it was gone. We were lost.
But through interpretation, our sages turned the Torah on its head in order to create an entirely new world, centered around prayer, study, and acts of loving kindness. Where before our lives revolved around just one holy place, now every home was a temple, and every synagogue was a Holy of Holies. Kings and priests had destroyed our way of life with sinat chinam, corruption and senseless hatred. But it was their mistakes that gave rise to to these audacious rabbinic pioneers who ensured that every Jewish home had an altar at its center, a Shabbat table where we salt our challah in remembrance of the sacrifices of old. That every Jewish child could create their own connection to God when they covered their eyes and recited the shema, as we did with you, when you were a child, every night before we went to sleep.
Shira: You know that your father and I started dating in Israel when we were studying to be rabbis. And when I think back on it, I’m not surprised that being in such a magical place helped me recover from one of the worst years of my life.
Just a couple of months before we left for Israel that year, I called off my engagement. I had a ring and a dress, we had picked a wedding date, we (my parents!) had placed deposits on a venue, a caterer, and a band. And when it was revealed that he wasn’t the person I thought he was, I felt my life unravel. Of course I was sad that the relationship was over, but mostly, I just felt ashamed. Mortified that I had let my family and my friends become so invested in a choice that I had made and then had to undo. I was convinced that everyone around me saw nothing but my failure and because of that, I stopped trusting myself and believing that I could ever give myself over to love again. If I couldn’t even trust my own judgment, how could I trust another person?
Adam: The first time I asked your mother out on a date, she was shocked. Not because such a handsome, intelligent, funny, and eligible bachelor like me would take an interest in her, but because she couldn’t see past the failure of the relationship that she had just ended. She thought everyone looked at her and felt only pity. I knew that she had recently broken off an engagement, but what I saw when I looked at her wasn’t a person who was broken, but a kind, talented, ethereal angel who was waiting to be made whole, who deserved to love and be loved. The fact that she had tried and failed only made her more alluring to me because she had been in a broken relationship and therefore would know even more how to create one that would be enduring and nurturing.
What she perhaps didn’t understand at the time is that there’s a big difference between failing and being a failure. This is something that I had to remind myself of and many others every year on Yom Kippur. I was so often asked: rabbi, why do we need to spend 25 whole hours beating our breasts, repeating the same confessions over and over and over again? Why are we presenting ourselves before God as people who are so completely inept, immoral, unkind? Am I really supposed to feel all that bad about myself? Are all those things we say in the machzor really true?
Of course they’re true, I would say. But just because you’ve sinned, that doesn’t make you a sinner. Yom Kippur is supposed to be a joyful day because we are unburdening ourselves, letting go of our failures one by one. We read over and over again that if we repent God will take us back in love. And why does God do that? Because God knows making a mistake is the prerequisite for teshuvah, for understanding how and why to make a better choice.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “man’s sin is his failure to live what he is. Being master of the earth, man forgets that he is the servant of God.” When God created the Garden of Eden for Adam and Eve and gave it over to their stewardship, he took quite a risk. Contained within the Garden was all the good that God created in six days, but God also knew that Adam and Eve were imperfect beings, subject to temptation. And so it would only be a matter of time before their curiosity caused them to fail. Why then, knowing that this was inevitable, would God place that temptation at the forefront of their consciousness, warning them not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Perhaps part of the plan all along was knowing that Adam and Eve would fail. And not just that, but that God would be there for them to love and comfort them as they learned the lessons of their failure. After Adam and Eve discover with their newfound knowledge that they are naked, God removes their shame by harnessing the very creation they had corrupted—the leaves of the Tree—and lovingly fashioned clothes to cover them. Their mistake became their redemption.
Shira: My sweet Hannah, you know that your father and I had so much nachas from you, that our hearts exploded with joy every time that we saw you succeed: the first time we saw you take center stage in your ballet tutu with a huge smile on your face, so composed, so filled with light. When your academic record was so stellar that you earned a FULL scholarship to college so that Mommy and Daddy could pay for all the cars that your younger sister wrecked. And when you discovered for the first time the incredible joy of what it is to love another person and to earn their love in return, when you were 37 and not a day younger!
But Hannah, don’t discount the times when you would come to us crying, broken, and afraid after you had bombed a test or ended a relationship or let a professional opportunity pass through your fingers. Just as our parents did for us, we wiped your tears and held you close and sat together and said, ok now what? And then, a day, a week, a month later, you showed us all what the answer to that question was. That my love, is the very definition of pride.
Adam: Rebecca, as you find yourself telling our stories over these next many days, I know that people will encourage you to share the good times, of the things we did to raise you with love and strength, and also the efforts we made to strengthen the Jewish people with love. But, don’t leave out half of the story. Don’t leave out the times when we got it wrong, when we misjudged, when we let you and others down. Because chances are, that behind every success story that you tell is also a story of learning to harness the lessons of failure and how powerful it is to emerge on the other side, after a long period of introspection, purified and reborn, ready to begin again.
Shira: Hannah, as the days of my life are coming to a close, I am reminded of the words we said each year at Ne’ilah just as the gates of heaven were swinging shut, marking the transition from one year of life to the next: kerachem av al banim, ken terachem Adonai aleinu. Just as a parent has compassion upon her child, so too God will show mercy unto us. We have held each other, you and I, many times, weeping, hoping that the love we hold for each other in our hearts will transform the sins of our past into the merits of our future. In my absence, I hope that God will hold you in a similar embrace and remind you to have compassion on yourself, to believe that every failure is an opportunity to draw closer to those in your life who will show you the way to goodness.
With all my love,
Adam: With all my heart,
Adam & Shira: Mom/Dad
Leave a Reply.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share