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Jewish World Review
April 24, 2008
/ 19 Nissan 5768
The successful failure
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Moses' secret? He knew how to lose
Throughout history some of the greatest people often failed time after time before they really made it to the top. Others thought that they had failed but realized at a later stage in life that what they believed to be failure was in fact a grand success. Still others never succeeded in the conventional sense of the word, but became the hallmark of marvelous accomplishments, sometimes, without ever being aware of it.
When we carefully study the life of Moses, we are confronted with a series of failures. Until his eighties he spent most of his time on the run without getting anywhere: After a short period of tranquility at the palace of Pharaoh, Moses had to run for his life after he killed an Egyptian. He spent many years in different countries, often hiding from the soldiers of the Egyptian regime, never enjoying a quiet moment. On other occasions he continuously failed to make any impression on his surroundings. There is little doubt that when he reached the age of eighty, just before G-d called to him, he must have thought that his life was over and that is was predominantly wasted. Nothing was accomplished, he was still the same shepherd trying to obtain some meager food, running around in circles.
And even after G-d called to him in his eightieth year, at the burning bush and he is consequently sent to liberate his people from the bondage of Pharaoh, his failures seem by far to outdo his successes: His first encounter with Pharaoh was a complete defeat. Instead of getting Pharaoh to agree that he should let the Jews have their freedom, Moses' audience with Pharaoh caused a stiffening of the latter's heart and his fellow Jews were now doomed to work even harder. Each time after a major plague, Moses was convinced that his goal was achieved and now he would be able to take the Jews out. A little later he discovered that Pharaoh had once more changed his mind and again Moses' high hopes were crushed.
In the desert he encounters one rebellion after the other. The Jews blame him for all sorts of crimes and even demand to return to Egypt. After the debacle of the golden calf G-d tells him that He will destroy this people. No doubt Moses must have felt that he had completely failed to educate his people to avert such a terrible transgression. Still later, after he sends emissaries to the land to "spy" the land, he is told that he will have to walk around in circles and spend another 39 years in the desert!
On another occasion his opponent Korach desires to undermine his authority, and Moses' is nearly murdered by his own people. And then there is the great fiasco whereby Moses ignores the exact instruction of G-d and instead of speaking to the stone in order produce water, he smites it and consequently hears that he will never be allowed to enter the land of Israel. This devastating news must have worked as the final blow to all his expectations.
Now that he was not allowed to fulfill his greatest dream, of living in the land, he must have felt that "it was all over" and that all his good intentions and deeds were of little value. That he would become the greatest Jew of all time, that his name would be immortalized in Scripture and that it would be on the lips of millions and millions of people for thousands of years, probably never entered his mind. Indeed he may never have known what an eminent man he really was and that there would never be a person who could come close to his heels as far as accomplishments are concerned.
What was Moses' secret that enabled him to continue in spite of everything to fight for his goals and succeed where so many others would have failed?
The answer is simple: He knew how to lose. He knew that his failures were in fact the building stones of his future successes. While he may never have known what his accomplishments were, he continued to fight and ultimately prevailed.
He who lies on the ground cannot fall, says a Yiddish proverb and many who are the most critical of those who failed do not realize that they themselves never left the ground. Those who never fail, never accomplish since defeat is the necessary step to success. The famous American philosopher Paul Tillich once remarked: "The awareness of the ambiguity of one's highest achievements as well as one's deepest failures is a definite symptom of maturity."
Above anything else one has to ask oneself what real success is all about. Let us draw an example from the world of a fitness center. This site consists of a large hall filled with many pieces of equipment which could take us on long journeys.
There are bicycles, which go nowhere, no matter how hard we peddle. There are rowing boats but no water, skies without snow and even climbing frames on which you can climb for hours without getting any higher. Still, you will find lots of people throughout most of the day working hard in the fitness center but getting nowhere.
This however does not sadden them. In fact many return next week and try again. The reason is obvious: Success with such equipment is not measured in how far you get but how much you gain in making your body more healthy from within. Externally is seems that there is no success whatsoever but inwardly the human being is growing tremendously. The superficial viewer may draw the conclusion that the cyclist, the mountain-climber and the rower are all failures.
The wise man smiles and knows that they are great winners.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo is a world-renowned lecturer and ambassador for Judaism, the Jewish people, the State of Israel and Sephardic Heritage.
© 2007, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo