Monday, October 7, 2019

G-d Rewards Failure (Derashah, Yom Kippur 5780)

My mood is more into the heavier type of derashah these days, like the one I posted here on how a suffering Jew does teshuvah, or like the derashah I posted for Rosh HaShanah. But optimism is important too, so here goes with an upbeat idea...

Adam and Chavah
It was a beautiful garden. Lush foliage, animals,[1] perhaps some colourful birds, a literal paradise designed for two human beings, Adam and Chavah, the original צלם אלקים created by Gd and commissioned to implement Gd’s vision on Earth. But there was, as they say, a serpent in the garden, a snake in the grass, and he identified a defect in the human design. Although granted explicit permission to eat of any tree save one, Chavah succumbed to the serpent’s invitation to eat from that single forbidden fruit, and Adam soon followed suit.

What defect did the serpent discover? It was not merely a weakness for attractive fruit, כי טוב העץ למאכל וכי תאוה הוא לעינים. The serpent lured Chavah by promising that if she and Adam would eat from the fruit, והייתם כאלקים, they would be gods, like Hashem. This greed was the weakness. But what did Chavah and Adam know about Hashem at this point? What was the magnet for their greed? Rashi explains that they knew Hashem to be a Creator of Worlds, and this was what Chavah and Adam wanted: to be יוצרי עולמות, Creators of Worlds, the capacity to create life.

And then we arrive at a perplexing part of the story. Hashem punished Adam and Chavah – but rather than take something away due to their greed, Hashem only adjusted the challenges to acting on their greed. I would have expected Hashem to punish Chavah and Adam by inhibiting any capacity to create – but Hashem explicitly licensed to Chavah and Adam the privilege of bringing life into this world. Hashem told Chavah: You will bring life from your body! HaShem told Adam: You will bring life from the ground! Painfully, to be sure. Frustratingly, of course. But Hashem allowed them the ability to create worlds; why?

The Eigel
For an even stronger example of perplexing punishment, look at what happened millennia later, in the events which would lead up to the first Yom Kippur.

Moshe proclaimed the Aseret haDibrot (Ten Commandments) to the Jews, and then disappeared up Mount Sinai. Day after day, his followers waited at the base of the mountain, still wearing their finery, still anticipating the return of the miracle-working leader who had brought them out of Egypt, split the sea and delivered to them the Torah. One week went by, then two, then three. Finally, after nearly six weeks, their long-eroded patience gave way and they created a Golden Calf as an intermediary via which to communicate with Hashem.[2]

Hashem told Moshe, “Descend, for your nation has become corrupt.” Moshe took in the scene, smashed the tablets of the Torah and punished the perpetrators - but what should have happened next? The nation overstepped in seeking to communicate with Hashem, so should not Hashem have cut off communication?

But again, just the opposite - according to Rashi, Hashem commanded that we create a Mishkan to facilitate our access to Hashem, and Hashem even inaugurated it in a grand and beautiful and joyous celebration, with special sacrifices and gifts! And when Shlomo haMelech built the Beit haMikdash, the eventual successor of that allegedly bedieved Mishkan, the celebratory dedication overrode Yom Kippur that year; as the gemara explains, the Jews ate and drank![3]

Even per Ramban,[4] who contended we were always meant to have a Mishkan and Beit haMikdash and these were not a response to the Eigel, the יום השמיני, the final day of the dedication of the Mishkan, may have been added just to make up for the Eigel – and this day was such a grand celebration that a midrash identifies it as יום שמחת לבו, the day of Hashem’s great joy![5] How could the Eigel’s terrible sin, with its death toll in the thousands, lead to יום שמחת לבו?

Level 1: Learning from Failure
On a simple level, we could suggest that Hashem provides new opportunities for Adam and Chavah, and the Jews of the Wilderness Generation, because now they are ready to learn. As psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote, “There are no mistakes, no coincidences. Just gifts given to us to learn from.[6]” Or as a famous athlete[7] once said, “I've failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed."

Level 2: Turning Failure Into Success
On a deeper level, though, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook identified a second reason for Hashem to respond to our transgressions with new opportunities: because recognizing our aveirot can stimulate us to perform mitzvot.

Rav Kook was troubled by a classic gemara, in which the sage Reish Lakish declared, גדולה תשובה שזדונות נעשות לו כזכיות, teshuvah is so great that it converts even intentional sin into merit.[8] How could an intentional aveirah possibly become a source of merit?

In his Orot haTeshuvah, Rav Kook explained that aveirot cause our sensitive neshamot (souls) to feel unsettled and anxious, recognizing that we have left the proper path. This anxiety triggers what he called העריגה והחפץ הקבוע אל השלמות, our inherent longing and desire to achieve perfection.[9] And so the aveirah becomes not an instant of degradation but a long-term building block, a catalyst for greatness, turning our intentional sin into an opportunity for merit.

This phenomenon of ירידה לצורך עלייה, destruction which fuels growth, appears not only in Torah, but also in nature. This is how muscles grow. When we exercise, we inflict “micro-tears”, small rips in the muscle fibers. Soreness after a workout is a function of those tears. Those tears are what enable muscles to grow; in repairing the tear, we experience hypertrophy, the fibers grow. The tears are our building blocks.

Level 3: Responding to Our Motivations
But let’s look closer, and we’ll see a third level, a deeper genius the Torah is revealing in its comprehension of sin and redemption, failure and possibility.

Chavah and Adam wished to be Creators; that’s a potentially positive motivation. But they wanted to do it quickly and cheaply, just eat a fruit and you become like Hashem. So Hashem taught them that they could indeed create life, but it would involve time and labour and pain. Hashem identified the creative desire that had been corrupted by their greed, and transformed their aveirah into a building block.

The Eigel was born from a desire to communicate with Hashem, but it was corrupted. So Hashem granted us an opportunity for successful communication with the Divine, a building block for greater success – a success which went on for many centuries of service.

In other words – transgression is often born from a potentially good desire, poorly implemented. Hashem is willing to provide additional opportunities to make good on those positive desires.

Hashem has three reasons, then, to reward our failure with opportunity.
·         First, because we learn from failure.
·         Second, because capitalizing on our feelings of guilt and discomfort can lead us to success and growth, and justify the mistakes, the micro-tears, we endured in order to get there.
·         And third, because our failures often stem from useful drives.
And so Hashem responds to Adam and Chavah by giving them greater opportunities to create, and to the Jews of the Golden Calf with greater opportunities for access to Gd.

Of course, having new opportunities also means we can fail in a greater way. Adam and Chavah’s power of creation generated Kayin, who killed his brother. And look at the many times we desecrated our Mishkan and Beit haMikdash, leading to its destruction! And yet – Hashem gives us those chances.

The Goal of Viduy
We are going to recite viduy (admission of sin) ten times today.[10] On one level, viduy involves declaring to Gd that we are a hot mess, filled with failure. We analyze the chain of events that brought us to this point, with an emphasis on the bad: The vulnerabilities which made us susceptible to destabilization. The actions of our transgressions. And the damage we created, for ourselves and for others, with those transgressions. We declare sin and regret, and we ask for forgiveness.

But viduy is also an appeal for opportunity.[11] We declare ולא שוה לנו! (it wasn’t worth it!), that we feel anxiety and upset as a consequence of our sins, testifying to our innate yearning to achieve perfection. We recognize that our sin involved desires to do something which could be good, which could generate greatness if only we could address our vulnerabilities and interrupt the destructive chain. We appeal for help שלא אחטא עוד, that we never sin again. We ask Gd to reward our failures, with the opportunity for success.

To give but one example: A chevra man, who enjoys his role as a social leader, is vulnerable to the excitement that comes with holding, and selectively sharing, potentially scandalous information. He learns of someone’s personal mistake – and that event leads him to share the information with other people in the community, violating innumerable halachot against lashon hara, rechilut, lifnei iver, and much more.

Before he ever gets to Yom Kippur, our chevra man must find a way to make amends for all of the people he has hurt – the subject of the scandal, that person’s family, the audience who heard the news, their own audiences for their re-tellings, etc. And then on Yom Kippur, as part of Viduy, our chevra man needs to acknowledge to Hashem and express regret for what he has done, and describe how he is going to avoid a repeat performance in the future. But he should also recognize the potential good – his desire to connect, unite, organize and rally people together. His horrible feelings from his wrongdoing. These can be strengths!

And this recognition can lead Hashem to send more opportunities the way of our chevra man – information which could lead him to corrrect, unite, organize and rally people for chesed, for tzedakah, for Torah study, for prayer. Our chevra man can follow the model of Adam and Chavah as positive creators, the Wilderness Generation building a Mishkan, Shlomo haMelech dedicating a Beit haMikdash!

Many people here will be saying Yizkor shortly, remembering relatives who have passed away. Yizkor testifies that our opportunities never end. Even for those who have gone on to עולם האמת (the world of truth), their families, the people they impacted through their lives and deeds, remember them, commemorate them with tefillah and tzedakah and mitzvot, and appeal to Hashem to remember them as well. The gemara states, אין ציבור מתה; whatever mistakes a previous generation made, the community lives on and has the opportunity to correct them.

Yes, failure is depressing – and admitting it ten times in one day is a lot, enough to drag anyone down. But when we recognize that our failure can point the way to our success, that viduy is actually a request for the opportunity to achieve, we will be inspired to follow Shlomo HaMelech’s counsel, כי שבע יפול צדיק וקם – The tzaddik falls seven times, but each time he gets up.[12] Or as Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith re-worded it: "Success consists of getting up one more time than you fall down." And that success will be well worth celebrating.

May our anxiety over our sins move us to identify both our mistakes and our strengths, and use those strengths to return to Hashem – and may Hashem return to us.

[1] Based on the לעבדה ולשמרה mandate
[2] See Kuzari 1:92-97, and Ibn Ezra to Shemot
[3] Moed Katan 9a
[4] Ramban to Vayikra 9:3
[5] And see Haameik Davar to Vayikra 9:1 on what יום שמחת לבו adds to יום חתונתו
[7] Michael Jordan
[8] Yoma 86b
[9] Orot haTeshuvah 5:6
[10] See Tur Orach Chaim 620, Maharil and others for explanations of why 10.
[11] Ditto viduy maaser; see Devarim 26:12-15
[12] Mishlei 24:16

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