Sunday, December 25, 2011

Falling, Failing, Growing

When my children were little, and learning to ski, at the end of a day on the mountain, I would often ask: “How did you do?” Sometimes, with great pride, they would say: “I didn’t fall even once!”

To which I would usually respond: “Then you’re probably not learning enough.”

In order to grow, we have to experience failure. While we rarely go out and actively seek tough challenges, hardships, and shortcomings, all of these things inevitably find us. If we face them honestly and directly, we can use them as opportunities to become better people. Thus the Talmud teaches that a person who sins and truly repents stands in a higher place than a totally righteous person. Our failures can make us better if we are willing to learn from them.

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-yigash, Judah shows that he is prepared to sacrifice his own life for his younger brother Benjamin. Thus the man who earlier sealed the deal to sell another brother, Joseph, into slavery comes to embody the possibility of teshuvah—of real and enduring transformation. The word “Jew” (yehudi) is derived from “Judah” (yehudah). This is highly significant. As Cantor Kay Greenwald notes: “We are yehudim, the spiritual descendants of Judah. Inside each of us is the ability to turn our lives around for the better. Each of us has the power to learn and grow from our mistakes and our life experiences. Each of us has the power to forgive and to be forgiven.”

In other words, we Jews are, by name and character, a people who, rather than being defined by our failures, see them as opportunities for growth.

Now, if only we can get some snow so that we can start working at falling. . .

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