Failing Wisely

The following sermon was given by Rabbi Miriam Margles on Yom Kippur, 5779.

The first sin, the original human sin, from a Jewish perspective, is not Adam and Eve eating from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Yes, that rebellious bite was in opposition to God’s one restriction in the Garden of Eden. And yes, that bite, that breach mythically created the world we know and live in, severed from the original unity of existence, creating separations and distinctions, creating the existential realities of exile, pain, and struggle, but this was not a moral breach. The first sin was the first the murder – Cain killing his brother Abel. And that first murder was born out of an experience of failure.

All the best literature on failure, in the realms of business and design, innovation and creativity, in the realms of psychology and spiritual practice, all talk about the importance of failing. The information and experience we get from failing is exactly what we need in order to try again, to fail better, to try yet again and again until we grow toward our aim and succeed. As the saying goes, “There are no mistakes only findings.”  The research is clear that we actually can not learn and grow unless we fail, and that if we aren’t failing on a regular basis, then we are setting our goals too low and we are choosing comfort, stagnation over the vitality of on-going development.

This is all true and all valuable. But there is an essential step we must not skip over. In order to fail wisely, in order to use our failures to grow our skills, to refine our goals, to strengthen our character and the maturity of our understanding of the world and of ourselves, it is essential for us to look closely at what happens within us when we actually have failed and when we feel like a failure. Let’s look at the narrative of Cain and Abel to shine a light on this dark and complicated inner landscape and see what insights it can offer.

Bereshit/Genesis chapter 4 reads,

“Abel became a shepherd and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to Adonai from the fruit of the earth; and Abel, he too, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. Adonai paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering, Adonai paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell.

And Adonai said to Cain, ‘Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen? Isn’t it so that if you do right, there is uplift? But if you do not do right, sin couches at the entrance; Its urge is toward you. Yet you can be its master.’  And Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.”

The first question we want to ask is, what was the nature of the failure? Two brothers both take the fruits of their labour and offer what is theirs to give. One is accepted, the other isn’t. While the Torah is not explicit as to why Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s was not, our Sages try to tease out the roots of failure here.

Many commentators point to the difference in adjectives in the text – Cain simply took mi’pri ha’adamah, from the fruit of the earth. It was Cain’s idea to give an offering. Clearly he felt a sense of gratitude. Clearly he was aware that his labour was only partly responsible for the yield he harvested. So with a gesture of thanksgiving, he offered some of the harvest to God. It’s possible he kept the best for himself. It’s possible the offering was somewhat perfunctory, an external act, perhaps from a sense of duty without necessarily being accompanied by a full heart. Cain gave an offering from the fruit of the earth.

Abel, on the other hand, gave mi’bechorot tzono u’me’chal’vey’hen, from the fattest of the firstlings of his flock. Abel, these commentators argue, gave his very best. He took Cain’s idea of giving a gratitude offering, and he deepened the intention behind it and the quality within it. He selected the choicest, fattest of the flock. He gave the firstlings to God before taking for himself. Perhaps his gratitude and humility grew as he looked carefully over the fullness of his flock and picked out the best. Perhaps the act kindled joy in him, joy in all he had, joy in the generosity of sharing it and joy in the possibility that it would be received with delight.

If this is the case, then Cain’s failure was of his own making. I’m sure you are familiar with these kinds of disappointments – you didn’t study hard enough for the exam; you didn’t do enough research into the client; you didn’t practice addressing challenging questions and thinking on your feet; you took a relationship for granted and you were coasting thinking it was good enough. These are the experiences of failure in which we underestimate what is needed or wanted, and we overestimate ourselves. Sometimes, we we lack the experience or foresight to recognize everything we are not taking into account, all the things that don’t occur to us to attend to. And other times we know better but simply don’t invest in the ways we could. It is only after the results that we expect don’t come to fruition, that we get angry with ourselves knowing we could have given more, could have done better, but we didn’t. And it’s usually in the comparison with someone else who did give more, that we become conscious of the gap between our own potential and the weakness of our effort. That’s when we feel disappointed in ourselves, embarrassed or humiliated, with only ourselves to blame. Cain’s realization of this chasm is expressed in his distress, and it shows on his fallen face.

Now, if that were the whole story, if just this characterized the failure, it wouldn’t be so difficult to shake it off, tend to a bruised ego and do better the next time. In this case, however, there is a deeper and more insidious aspect to Cain’s experience of failure. The 19th century Hasidic master, Reb Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, notices that Torah states, “And Abel, gam hu, he too, brought an offering.”  The Gerer Rebbe comments that the Hebrew, gam hu, doesn’t merely mean that he too brought an offering, but that his offering was himself also. He brought the best he had and he brought the best he was. Cain, like his brother, saw the harvest he offered as an extension of his own being. In a world that is uncertain and difficult, he was yearning to be seen and recognized, wanting confirmation of his goodness and his worth. But because Cain’s offering was not accepted, Cain understood it to be a rejection of his very being and it cut to his core.

This is a very different human experience, a much harder experience of failure, when we believe that we have thrown our whole selves in, that we have put forward the very best of our efforts and intentions and the finest version of ourselves, and, for whatever reason, this is rejected.

It is important to state here that I understand the Torah’s descriptions of God, as human understandings of the Divine mystery of Being and so I hear God’s acceptance of one offering and rejection of the other as revealing more about Cain’s experience than about the nature of God or God’s actions. I would guess that we have all had experiences of failure, of rejection, in which the reasons at play elude us or seem arbitrary and the decisions that feel like measures of our entire worth are out of our control. This creates a different order of crestfallen disappointment, of heartbreak. What this experience of failure stirs is not merely embarrassment or regret but it becomes internalized as shame.

You might be familiar with the work of Dr. Brene Brown on shame. She explains that rather than acknowledging that I made a mistake, shame is totalizing. It grabs hold of the entire self and concludes that I am a mistake. I am insufficient, all wrong. I will never be good enough. And who am I to suggest otherwise?! Shame buries us, and so it’s not surprising that, as Brown notes, shame is highly correlated with depression, addiction, aggression and violence. Oy, it’s so hard to be human!

When shame lodges itself in our hearts and minds it becomes near-impossible to see our failures as useful material for learning, and it becomes near-impossible to see ourselves as resilient learners. Shame is the greatest obstacle to failing wisely.

So how do we move from this excruciating shame-filled place? This is where God’s voice in the narrative is so potent. God asks a powerful, beautiful question as the Divine voice tries to disrupt the shame that Cain is tightening around himself.

‘Why?’ God asks. ‘Why are you distressed and why has your face fallen?’ Like a life preserver thrown out to a drowning person, like a wise parent, or skilled therapist, or sometimes like a skilled rabbi, or like a good friend, God mirrors each expression of Cain’s pain and asks him share it. Tell me why this is so painful. Show me how ugly and dark and isolating it feels. God asks ‘why’ to prompt Cain to share his humanity, challenging his belief that shame diminishes his humanity.

God asks ‘why’ to guide Cain to observe his shame and to reflect on it, to question the beliefs that freeze shame firmly in place. By asking questions, God prompts Cain to take everything he is ruthlessly turning on himself and to externalize it instead, in the presence of a loving Other, witnessing with empathy, without trying to fix it or change it.

For us too, this voice, this loving presence is absolutely necessary. It urges us, even though it feels terribly uncomfortable, it urges us to practice staying present with shame, with how it feels in the body, uncovering it rather than letting it fester in secret, observing what it does to us, to our thinking, and turning a compassionate eye toward the truth of its pain until we can loosen its condemning grip on the whole of who we are. And when that compassionate voice does come, whether it’s from within or from without, it is indeed the voice of the Divine.

Then God lays out two paths for Cain to choose from. Im tativ – if you do good, there is uplift, ve’im lo tativ, but if you do not do good, then sin couches at the entrance; Its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.”  One option follows a path of goodness and there is elevation here. The other shrinks around the absence of goodness and it can only lead to sin.         

Im tativ – If you do good, there is uplift. What could this mean? If the failure came from your own lack, there is room to examine how you conducted yourself, to make different choices and lift this failing up and out of the dark hole you closed it in.

Im tativ – if you bring goodness to your comparing mind, and stop using someone else’s success as the reason to brutalize yourself with a sense of failure, then there will be lightening and lifting.

Im tativ – if you anchor yourself in goodness, in a picture of yourself that is larger than this failing and in a picture of goodness that is infinitely more vast than the boundaries of your small and separate self, you yourself will be uplifted and you will know yourself as part of that which is buoyant.

Im tativ – if you seek out the good, drawing sparks of holy light that the mystics believe are hidden in the darkest husks, then the experiences that feel the most terrible can be a source of elevation, if you can stay as long as it takes to see the sparks to emerge (Pnai David).

Im tativ – If you make your goal the goodness of your desire to serve and give, rather than recognition and approval, then your heart will grow lighter (Mei Hashiloach) and no one’s rejection can take this away from you.

Im tativ – if you learn to make this pain a source of goodness, if you study at the feet of your own tears and ache, if you surrender to the experience of being broken open, then your tears will be able unlock the gates of heaven and your sensitivity for the heartbreak of others will be able to lift them up (Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a).

Ve’im lo tativ –  But if you don’t find a way to use these experiences to distill goodness from them, then sin crouches at your door. When Cain couldn’t or wouldn’t bear the vulnerability of his shame, he turned it into violence. Sin enters the world, again and again, through the door of that totalizing shame in the face of failure.

On Yom Kippur we publicly declare, together, that we have failed. We fail. We fall wildly short of what we are capable of. We fail to rise to the occasion. We fail each other. We fail morally. We fail to understand what is needed of us. We fail even when we give our best, and our actions are insufficient to meet the challenges in front of us. The prayers of Yom Kippur are focused on our actions and every confession of failing and wrongdoing helps us confront our guilt and moves us toward to repair. In all the lists of confessions and prayers asking for forgiveness, not once, never is there an assertion that you are a mistake, that something is wrong with you or that you could do anything to make you unworthy of forgiveness, or love or another chance.

There are many pathways to transform the shame of failing into the life-weary and wise fruits of its goodness. To follow any of these paths we have to accept our vulnerability, to stop seeing it as weakness and hiding it, but rather to claim it as part of our human beauty, our aliveness and a source of wisdom. We have to let ourselves be seen vulnerably, shame and all. And we have to decide by sheer force of will, even if we don’t believe it yet, that we are worthy of love, that we already belong to each other, and that our empathy and our learning can transform any failing. We are here to let shame unlock its grip and to instead fail wisely together.

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