Why Failure Matters: Reflections on the Torah and Olympics

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 30, 2021 / 21 Av 5781

Summary: The Torah assumes that failure is a part of human life and encourages us to use it effectively. This week’s Oasis Songs examines failure and Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the Olympics.

Reading Time: Five minutes

There was a moment in Silicon Valley history when entrepreneurs starting new enterprises had difficulty attracting venture capital dollars if they hadn’t already had at least one start-up failure under their belt. The mantra that developed was “fail fast, fail often.” The courageous contrarianism conveyed in this statement is a potent reminder that in life, failure is unavoidable and can sometimes produce new insights. Failure, in other words, can often be the fertile soil on which future growth depends.


Why is this? What does failure provide?

First, if we don’t consider all our options, we are unlikely to fail because we will have stayed safely within the painted lines. The propensity to fail can be an indication of novelty. It doesn’t have to be, but failure sometimes is a witness to those who really are flirting with innovation. Stumbling onto something new that can meet the needs of the marketplace (of ideas, spirit, or products) is never easy. Boldly going where we and others haven’t says something important about us.

Second, failure isn’t always good. Oftentimes it is traumatic and prevents our willingness to try new things the next time. Failure can claim a psychic toll from which it is difficult to recover. This highlights some important caveats to this notion that failure breeds success. Foremost is our capacity and willingness to learn from our mistakes. Additionally, how do we incorporate the moral meaning of our failures and our traumas into our lives? If we don’t process these well, failure will lead us toward a fixed mindset that limits our capacity to live fully and joyously.

I hear echoes of these themes in this week’s Torah portion of Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) and in the Summer Olympics. Eikev is all about the moral consequences of our actions. As Rabbi Dina Rosenberg writes, “A good chunk of Parshat Eikev is reminding the Israelites of the many times they made the wrong choices. We are reminded of the golden calf incident, the complaining about not enough water or meat…the destruction of the first set of tablets and so on. God warns us that when we disobey and don’t act with our Jewish values, we risk Divine punishment.…On the other hand, those who chose to follow God’s path and did what was right in the eyes of God were rewarded. They received manna from the sky, their shoes and clothes never became worn out and God freed them with an outstretched arm.”

Let’s develop Rabbi Rosenberg’s insight. Most of the Torah is a record of failure followed by the long, slow process of growth that occurs when we take proper stock of our failures. Jacob repeatedly does the wrong thing because he seems unable to understand that his actions matter. He steals the birthright and surrounds himself with unethical people (Laban and sons). It is not until he wrestles with himself on the banks of the Jabok River that we witness his growth and development. Past failure eventually led him to moral success, demonstrated by his acquisition of his new name, Israel.

Rabbi David Wolpe once gave a sermon in which he noted that the entire Book of Genesis recounts people’s inability to take responsibility for their actions. Eve blames her wrongdoing on the serpent. Adam blames his actions on Eve. Cain blames his brother for his emotions of envy and kills Abel. It is not until Joseph and his brothers’ reconciliation that we see how embracing failure can advance our moral development. Teshuvah is the Jewish approach to learning and growing from our failures.

Seen in this light, Parshat Eikev can be viewed as a cautionary tale. It informs us to expect failure exactly in the place where we experience success. “When you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large, and your silver and gold increase, and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud, and you will forget…”

Simone Biles’ dramatic departure from the Olympics highlights this in stunning ways. Her brave decision to step away for her mental well-being serves as an important act of role modeling. Too often, our society valorizes external success (fine houses and large flocks, if you will) while ignoring the moral and internal dimensions of our lives. In the aftermath of Biles’ courageous act, the news was filled with stories of other Olympians and their battles with depression, anxiety, and mental illness.

I find that rather encouraging. We are always more than our disabilities, limitations, and weaknesses. When we learn how some of our greatest athletes overcome their limitations, it can encourage us to strive for what matters to us. Additionally, while the stigma of mental illness has been greatly reduced, we still have more work to do to normalize and accept its prevalence so that anyone who is suffering can and will seek and receive necessary support. Each of those insights goes hand in hand.

Finally, it is a reminder that we are moral beings who must learn to treat ourselves and others with respect and care. When we forget this (we all do at times) and become overly focused on external success, there are normally repercussions. Simone Biles reminds us of this truth. She remembered what matters and in the most public of ways educated all of us about that. Gold medals are wonderful. Wellness is even more valuable.

And that returns us to the value of failure. It’s not that failure is a good in and of itself. It’s just something that happens, regular as rain. Unavoidable. What makes failure important is how it illuminates our next steps and encourages our self-growth. When we treat failure as a guide, it opens the next phase of our journeys. It allows us to turn—or return—to a better version of ourselves.

Sunday, August 8th, marks the new month of Elul and the thirty days of moral and spiritual preparation for Yamim Noraim, our High Holidays. As we reflect on this past year, I am sure that each of us will recall some of our past failings. My prayer and hope for us all is to hold on to the normalcy of failure and to treat it as a training ground. When it comes to the moral dimensions of our lives, each of us can be an Olympian, striving for our personal best.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What’s the first thought or feeling that occurs to you when you hear the word failure?
  2. Which personal failure taught you the most?
  3. What made you receptive to its lessons?

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