Sunday, August 26, 2012

Michael Jordan and K'naan on Repentance

[Looks like Mashiach will have wireless - Israeli biblical park outfits donkeys with wireless routers]

"Failing is just an excuse for me to get better." – K'naan

"I've failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed." – Michael Jordan

In my mind, these quotes stand apart from traditional Jewish approaches to repentance because they convey the following rather arrogant messages:

1. I need only work harder in order to get where I need to go.
Failure is not about moral weakness or a demonstration of a flawed character requiring introspection and reconstruction of the self, but only a practical, technical error or non-achievement of a goal.

2. I need not appeal to a higher authority, or another party at all, for aid. It's all in my hands.
Contrast this with the classic Jewish idea of appealing to Gd for aid against the inclination toward sin, and the need for the assistance of mentors and peers in creating the right environment and incentives for growth.

3. I have already perfected myself after past failures, and can reflect on my growth from the perspective of success.
What Torah-based writer will refer to himself as having righted his wrongs and succeeded? What Jewish Jordan would ever present himself as a finished product?

And yet, I love these lines; they sit in a file that is always open on my computer, and they inspire me throughout the month of Elul. I love that arrogance, the assertion that it really is in my hands.

It's almost like Elazar ben Durdaya's recognition regarding his own repentance (Avodah Zarah 17a), אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי, "It depends only upon me," but stronger.

It ain't Rav Kook, but it works for me.


  1. I don't think that all failure is sin, although there is still a message there that we can do anything.

    I prefer the less optimistic/more realistic quote from Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried? Ever failed? Fail again. Fail better."

  2. To me, Jordan's point means "I succeed now because I learned from earlier failures." The real implications depend on what he learned!

  3. I think Jordan's quote is just lacking articulation, essentially. The implication of his statement is the value of perseverance and developing resiliency.

    And while Torah authors may not boast or consider themselves successes, they still attribute their current standings to past failures and struggles.

  4. Who says they are referring to Teshuvah? See Pachad Yitzchak letter 128 and his definition of the pasuk "Sheva Yipol Tzadik V'Kam." The fools say Tzadikkim get up even though they fall. R' Hutner explains it that a Tzaddik is made by getting up after stumbling.

  5. Daniel-
    1. I like the Beckett quote;
    2. Not all failure is sin, but all sin is failure.

    Bob, Shmuel-
    Could be.

    Do you think they are referring only to athletic failure?

    1. > but all sin is failure. least initially. But then, like Rav Kook writes, at the most elevated level of teshuva one can look back and see how those particular moments were in fact the loftiest.

    2. True, Shmuel, but I was answering Daniel's point...

  6. After reading your title and the quotes, I thought to myself, "those are great slogans for Elul (or anytime really, but 'tis the season) that one could tell oneself as part of a strategy that no matter what failures one had in the past, those failures should be viewed as challenges to do better in the future, and success IS possible." So while you are probably right about what they meant by it (you are certainly right that they weren't talking about teshuva as we understand it), whether they are compatible with "traditional Jewish view of repentance" is in my view very much in the eye of the beholder. I say they the quotes themselves are compatible, even if the individuals who said them may not themselves have understood it that way and the quotes themselves don't contain all the necessary information. Maybe that's what you're saying when you say you still like them.

  7. Shmuel 2-
    Yes, that's exactly what I am going for. They are wonderful motivational passages. And, to a certain extent, knowing the story of the people behind them does help.

  8. If you believe that human beings have free will, then there is nothing in the least arrogant about the idea that, ultimately, it is all in one's own hands. Saying or believing so in no way precludes seeking advice or guidance along the way to reaching the goal; it's merely an acknowledgement that, in the end, knowing the right or necessary thing to do is not the same thing as actually taking the action to do it, and taking that action or not is completely in the hands of the individual. If it were otherwise, the Torah would be a great deal shorter.