Yom Kippur: The Blessing of Failure

September 27, 2011

6 min read


Recognizing our shortcomings is the only way to achieve success in life.

“What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?”

That was the tantalizing title of the lead story in the New York Times Sunday magazine a few weeks ago. The article makes us rethink an attitude that has become culturally accepted as unquestioned truth, and more profoundly, its conclusions encourage us to acknowledge the wisdom of Jewish tradition and the insights it asks us to emphasize in our observance of Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is a day dedicated to acknowledging our failings.

Related Video: Yom Kippur: Everyone Falls

Over and over again we repeat the words, "I have sinned." We recognize that in many ways we "missed the mark," the literal translation of the Hebrew word for sin. We admit we weren't perfect. If we were to be graded by God for our actions during the past year, we confess that in some areas we deserve an F.

And yet whoever heard of a mark like that in our contemporary culture?

For decades now parents have been told by many ostensible experts that all they are permitted to do in rearing children is to praise them. Criticism is always destructive of self-esteem, and self-esteem is the highest value we must pass on to our progeny. Make them feel good about themselves; that way they will feel happy and self contented. Don't ever burden them with the verdict that they have failed to fulfill any objective. Don't ever crush their spirits by telling them they could've done better. Rewards, not criticism or punishments, are what children need to become responsible adults.

The teaching profession, too, was slowly drawn into this philosophy of "praise at all costs" without any reminders of failure. Grade inflation turned everyone into a scholar, because "he tried his best and he might feel bad if he didn't get an excellent mark." Valedictorians were eliminated in many schools because those who didn't earn the honor felt the loss of self-esteem, and it just didn't seem right to acknowledge that some weren't as perfect as others. More liberal schools eliminated competitive sports - or if they had them, rejected keeping score - so that nobody would ever have to admit to being a loser.

We need to acknowledge our weaknesses and failings if we are ever to improve and become what we are capable of becoming.

But what if the real secret to success is failure?

What if we need to keep score in our own lives and to acknowledge our errors, our weaknesses, and our failings if we are ever to improve and become what we are capable of becoming?

The New York Times article is an eye-opener because it forces us to confront what previous generations knew and we chose to forget: Recognizing our shortcomings is the only way to achieve success in life.

Paul Tough, the author of the essay (the appropriateness of his last name is stunningly obvious), concludes his lengthy analysis with this observation:

Most Riverdale students can see before them a clear path to a certain type of success. They’ll go to college, they’ll graduate, they’ll get well-paying jobs — and if they fall along the way, their families will almost certainly catch them, often well into their 20s or even 30s, if necessary. But despite their many advantages, Randolph [the headmaster of this exclusive and very wealthy school] isn’t yet convinced that the education they currently receive at Riverdale, or the support they receive at home, will provide them with the skills to negotiate the path toward the deeper success that Seligman and Peterson hold up as the ultimate product of good character: a happy, meaningful, productive life. Randolph wants his students to succeed, of course — it’s just that he believes that in order to do so, they first need to learn how to fail.

To learn how to fail is nothing less than a succinct five word summary of the Yom Kippur confessional. It requires us to be mature enough to face up to the personal failings which well-meaning parents, teachers and friends tried to shield us from recognizing. It asks us to admit we’re not perfect precisely because we’re willing to take on the challenge of perfecting ourselves.

On Yom Kippur we have to define ourselves in light of a concept that Benjamin Barber, a political scientist at Rutgers University, believes is an ultimate truth about human behavior. We love to categorize people, usually by labeling them by one of two distinctly different characteristics. People are skinny or fat, introverted or extroverted, optimists or pessimists, serious or funny. All of these lead to stereotyping and to generalizations that aren’t completely accurate. But there is one division of people that Barber claims is the most crucial and correct way to differentiate between them. He says:

I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures, those who make it or those who don’t. I divide the world into learners and non-learners - those who acknowledge their failures, learn from them, and move forward as opposed to those who can't admit ever having done anything wrong, never learn from their mistakes, and doom themselves to reliving the errors of their ways.

That's why on Yom Kippur, when we’re asked to reflect upon whether our lives can be considered a success, we’re judged by whether we’re courageous enough to confess our sins and to admit our failures.

To acknowledge, to God and to ourselves, where we've gone wrong in our lives doesn't diminish us. On the contrary, it affords us the wisdom and strength to grow and to improve.

S. I. Hayakawa, former U.S. senator from California and a specialist in semantics, alerted us to an all-important distinction between two English words that most of us assume are identical: “Notice the difference between what happens when a man says to himself, `I have failed three times,’ and what happens when he says, `I am a failure.’” To think of yourself as a failure is to create a perpetual self-image as a loser. But if you learn from your experience, if your failure inspires you to surpass yourself and to do it better next time, if you understand that failure is merely a momentary event but doesn't define you—then you are an alumnus of the best school in the world, and your failure was the tuition you paid for your eventual success.

On Yom Kippur we evaluate ourselves. On Yom Kippur we are critical of our failings. On Yom Kippur we don't deny our sins - we build on their memory for spiritual growth.

On Yom Kippur we realize the truth that failure - acknowledging it, learning from it, and rising from it - is really the secret of success.

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