Friday, May 13, 2016

Failing and Learning (portion Emor)

In baseball, even the best hitters fail seven out of ten times.
                                    -Ichiro Suzuki

As perennial all-star and future hall of famer Ichiro Suzuki notes, baseball is a game of mostly failure, punctuated by the occasional success.  Even the very best players fail to hit the ball four times out of ten.  In this sense, the game very much echoes the Torah itself, which recounts failure after failure.  Human beings miss the mark more often than not, and even God makes a colossal error, despairing of the creation, destroying everything in the flood, and then regretting the destruction.  But like elite baseball players, our challenge is to accept our propensity to fail—and then learn from our mistakes.

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, discusses the role and limitations of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest.  It notes that he cannot come into contact with any dead bodies, even in the course of burying his own mother and father.  He must subsume his personal circumstances—even intense grief—for the sake of the Jewish community that he is appointed to serve.  The words engraved on the gold plate that adorns his priestly turban sum it up—he is to be Kodesh l’Adonai—Holy to God.

Given that enormous burden of responsibility, it is not so surprising to note that most who took on this sacred office failed.  Dr. Ari Zivotofsky of Bar Ilan University, referencing the Talmud, notes that “during the 420 years in which the Second Temple stood, there were four righteous High Priests [who served for many years], and more than 300 others who did not even serve a full year.” 

To follow a classic Talmudic line of argumentation: If the High Priest, who was the holiest of Jewish officials, failed far more often than not, then kal v’chomer—all the more so—we ordinary people will mostly fall short of our highest expectations and goals.  But that should not lead us to despair.  As Rabbi Yael Shy notes, “I like to imagine the Kohens who didn't make it in the "Gadol" position still found holiness in the small places of their lives. I imagine the smells of the sacrifices in the Temple and the sounds of the prayers and perhaps the very texture of the silence in the Holy of Holies animated their everyday, slightly more "regular" Kohen existence.”

This week, consider: How can you dream big and aspire to change the world while still recognizing that failure is unavoidable—and a learning opportunity?

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