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. . .

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Motion and Miracles (d'var for Chanukah)

Anne Lamott opens her book Bird by Bird with an episode from her childhood that profoundly shaped her decision to become a writer and continues to influence the way that she works. She recalls: "Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."

As this story illustrates, when we face difficult tasks, our greatest challenge is often just getting started. Anxiety and expectation can paralyze us. In these situations, the key to success is taking action—any action, even if it seems futile or off the mark. One can always correct mistakes later. The courage to act generates its own momentum, and once we begin to move forward, our confidence and our competence tend to expand by leaps and bounds. Progress is incremental, but once we start, it is also real. Bird by bird. Or, as another teaching puts it, the greatest journey begins with a single step.

I believe that this lesson lies at the heart of the Chanukah story. What is the real miracle here? The fact that a day’s worth of oil lasted for an additional week is relatively small time. Measured against, say, the plagues, or the parting of the Red Sea, slow burning fuel is really no big deal. The remarkable part of the story is the faith of the Maccabees. Given that small cruse of oil, they might very well have thought to themselves: “Since it will go out in a day, why bother to light it at all?”

Instead, they determined to kindle that lamp, to move forward with the hope and faith that, with God’s help, they would find a way to continue that journey on the morrow.

This week, as we celebrate Chanukah, recall the times that you have moved forward in your life, despite your anxiety, taking that single step that began a significant real or metaphorical journey. Let that memory sustain you through your current challenges, knowing that if you take them “bird by bird” you can, indeed, succeed.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Becoming Mensches (portion Va-yeshev)

Sometimes it takes adversity to spur growth. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Va-yeshev, we meet our forefather Joseph. As a youth, he seems to have it all: striking good looks, his father Jacob’s favor, sartorial splendor in his many-colored coat, and the ability to prophesy through dreams and their interpretation. Yet young Joseph’s life takes some very difficult turns as a result of his one nearly fatal flaw of narcissism. At seventeen, Joseph lacks the slightest hint of empathy or even awareness of others’ feelings. He flaunts his status as favorite over his brothers, recounting to them his dreams of personal glory that can only serve to inflame their jealousy. As a result, those same brothers sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt, then tell their father that he is dead.

Things go from bad to worse. After he resists the advances of his master’s wife, Joseph winds up in prison, where he languishes, lost and forgotten. The youth who seemed destined for greatness has hit rock bottom. But it is in precisely this place of darkness and despair that Joseph becomes worthy of his birthright and his visions of leadership. When he encounters two fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s former baker and cupbearer, Joseph notices that they are distraught before either one utters a word. With great compassion, he asks them: “Why do you appear downcast today?” The vicissitudes of life have enabled Joseph to mature from a profoundly gifted but rather callous lad into a genuine mentsch.

So, too, in our own lives. While we certainly do not seek out struggle, suffering, and loss, these things inevitably find us. Our challenge is to transform our difficult times and events into pathways of growth and compassion. Out of our darkest experiences, previously hidden strengths can emerge—if we nurture them and move forward with hope and faith. Or, as the psalmist puts it, in beautifully poetic imagery: “The stone that the builder rejected can become the chief cornerstone.”

This week, consider: how can you grow through adversity?