20210116 Parsha Vaera – Dealing with Failure

Last week we talked about being a leader.  One of the aspects of being a leader is how we react when things don’t go as planned.

At first, Moses’ mission seemed to be successful. He had feared that the people would not believe in him, but God had given him signs to perform, and his brother Aaron to speak on his behalf. Moses “performed the signs before the people, and they believed. And when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.” (Ex. 4:30-31)

But then things start to go wrong, and continue going wrong. Moses’ first appearance before Pharaoh is disastrous. Pharaoh refuses to recognize God. He rejects Moses’ request to let the people travel into the wilderness. He makes life worse for the Israelites. They must still make the same quota of bricks, but now they must also gather their own straw. The people turn against Moses and Aaron: “May the Lord look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us” (Ex. 5:21).

Moses and Aaron return to Pharaoh to renew their request. They perform a sign – they turn a staff into a snake – but Pharaoh is unimpressed. His own magicians can do likewise. Next they bring the first of the plagues, but again Pharaoh is unmoved. He will not let the Israelites go. And so it goes, nine times. Moses does everything in his power and finds that nothing makes a difference. The Israelites are still slaves.

We sense the pressure Moses is under. After his first setback, at the end of last week’s parsha, he turns to God and bitterly complains: “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all” (Ex. 5:22-23).

In this week’s parsha, even though God has reassured him that he will eventually succeed, he replies, “If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?” (Ex. 6:12).

There is an enduring message here. Leadership, even of the very highest order, is often marked by failure. The first Impressionists had to arrange their own exhibition because their work was rejected by the Paris salons. The first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused a riot, with the audience booing throughout. Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime despite the fact that his brother Theo was an art dealer.

So it is with leaders. Lincoln faced countless setbacks during the civil war. He was a deeply divisive figure, hated by many in his lifetime. Gandhi failed in his dream of uniting Muslims and Hindus together in a single nation. Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison, accused of treason and regarded as a violent agitator. Churchill was regarded as a spent force in politics by the 1930s, and even after his heroic leadership during the Second World War was voted out of office at the first General Election after the war was over. Only in retrospect do heroes seem heroic and the many setbacks they faced reveal themselves as stepping stones on the road to victory.

In every field, high, low, sacred or secular, leaders are tested not by their successes but by their failures. It can sometimes be easy to succeed. The conditions may be favorable. The economic, political or personal climate is good. When there is an economic boom, most businesses flourish. In the first months after a general election, the successful leader carries with him or her the charisma of victory. In the first year, most marriages are happy. It takes no special skill to succeed in good times.

But then the climate changes. Eventually it always does. That is when many businesses, and politicians, and marriages fail. There are times when even the greatest people stumble. At such moments, character is tested. The great human beings are not those who never fail. They are those who survive failure, who keep on going, who refuse to be defeated, who never give up or give in. They keep trying. They learn from every mistake. They treat failure as a learning experience. And from every refusal to be defeated, they become stronger, wiser and more determined. I used to tell junior officers on my ships that it was ok to make mistakes if you learn from them. What was not ok was not doing anything for fear of failure. That is the story of Moses’ life in last week’s parsha and in this.

Jim Collins, one of the great writers on leadership, puts it well:

The signature of the truly great versus the merely successful is not the absence of difficulty, but the ability to come back from setbacks, even cataclysmic catastrophes, stronger than before …The path out of darkness begins with those exasperatingly persistent individuals who are constitutionally incapable of capitulation. It’s one thing to suffer a staggering defeat…and entirely another to give up on the values and aspirations that make the protracted struggle worthwhile. Failure is not so much a physical state as a state of mind; success is falling down, and getting up one more time, without end.

Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner once wrote a powerful letter to a disciple who had become discouraged by his repeated failure to master Talmudic learning:

A failing many of us suffer is that when we focus on the high attainments of great people, we discuss how they are complete in this or that area, while omitting mention of the inner struggles that had previously raged within them. A listener would get the impression that these individuals sprang from the hand of their creator in a state of perfection . . .

The result of this feeling is that when an ambitious young man of spirit and enthusiasm meets obstacles, falls and slumps, he imagines himself as unworthy of being “planted in the house of God” . . .

Know, however, my dear friend, that your soul is rooted not in the tranquility of the good inclination, but in the battle of the good inclination…The English expression, “Lose a battle and win the war,” applies. Certainly, all of you, including myself, have stumbled and we will stumble again, and in many battles, we will fall lame. I promise you, though, that after those losing campaigns you will emerge from the war with laurels of victory on your head…The wisest of men said, “A righteous man falls seven times, but rises again” (Proverbs 24:16). Fools believe the intent of the verse is to teach us that the righteous man falls seven times and, despite this, he rises. But the knowledgeable are aware that the essence of the righteous man’s rising again is because of his seven falls.

Rabbi Hutner’s point is that greatness cannot be achieved without failure. There are heights you cannot climb without first having fallen.

Thomas Edison has a couple of quotes regarding failure. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” And “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up”.

Calvin Coolidge had a good thought about not giving up. “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” I would only add, “And seyata diShmaya, the help of Heaven.” God never loses faith in us even if we sometimes lose faith in ourselves.

The supreme role model is Moses who, despite all the setbacks chronicled in last week’s parsha and this, eventually became the man of whom it was said that he was “a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were undimmed and his energy unabated” (Deut. 34:7).

Defeats, delays and disappointments hurt. They hurt even for Moses. So if there are times when we too feel discouraged and demoralized, it is important to remember that even the greatest people failed. What made them great is that they kept going. The road to success passes through many valleys of failure. There is no other way.

An example of learning from failure that all of us know is the life of Rav Shaul, the Apostle Paul.

After Yeshua rose from the grave and was resurrected, his followers were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to share the good news about Yeshua, and many people became believers.

The Jewish leaders were extremely upset about this. They thought they had dealt with Yeshua by having him crucified. A young man named Saul was especially upset.

Rav Shaul was an accomplice to murder.

The first time we read about Rav Shaul, he was an accomplice to murder. He was guarding the clothes of a mob that was stoning Stephen to death. Stephen’s “crime” was preaching about Yeshua.

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, Acts 7 59-60 “Lord Yeshua, receive my spirit!”Then he fell on his knees and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” After he said this, he died.

We read that Rav Shaul was there, giving approval of Stephen’s death (Acts 8:1).

Rav Shaul captured Believers in Jerusalem and put them in jail.

Rav Shaul continued to persecute Yeshua’s followers in Jerusalem, going house to house and dragging people off to prison.

Acts 8:1-4  Now Saul was in agreement with Stephen’s execution. On that day a great persecution arose against Messiah’s community in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the emissaries. (2)  Some devout men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.  (3)  But Saul was destroying Messiah’s community, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he was throwing them into prison.  (4)  Now those who had been scattered went around proclaiming the Word.

Rav Shaul persecuted more Believers and voted for many to be killed.

Not only did Rav Shaul persecute Believers in Jerusalem, he also traveled to foreign cities to persecute them (Acts 26:11). He tried to get them to blaspheme, and he voted for many to be put to death.

Acts 26:9-11“In fact, I myself thought it was necessary to do many things in opposition to the name of Yeshua ha-Natzrati.(10)And that is what I did in Jerusalem. Not only did I lock up many of the kedoshim in prisons by the authority I received from the ruling kohanim, but I cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death.(11)I tried to cause them to blaspheme by punishing them often in the synagogues. In furious rage against them, I persecuted them even in foreign cities.

Rav Shaul planned a trip to look for Believers in Damascus. Before he left, he asked the high priest for letters of introduction to the synagogues in Damascus.

Acts 9:1-2  Now Saul, still breathing out threats and murder against the Lord’s disciples, went to the kohen gadol.  (2)  He requested letters of introduction from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any men or women belonging to the Way, he might bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

While Rav Shaul was on the road to Damascus, he had an amazing encounter with Yeshua and became a believer. (Read Acts 9:3-19.)

Rav Shaul learned from his failures.

When Yeshua confronted Rav Shaul on the road to Damascus, Rav Shaul learned that he had failed in his efforts to serve God. He had been persecuting God, not serving him (Acts 9:4-5).

Rav Shaul did much more than learn from his failures. His life turned around completely. Instead of persecuting Believers, he started to tell people about Yeshua.

Acts 9:20  Immediately he began proclaiming Yeshua in the synagogues, saying, “He is Ben-Elohim.”

In the following years, Rav Shaul started congregations over much of the Roman empire. He was often beaten and imprisoned for his faith, yet he wrote:

Philippians 1:21For to me, life is the Messiah, and death is gain.

Rav Shaul became humble.

Rav Shaul was a Jewish leader before his Damascus road experience. However, as a result of that vision, he was changed, he was deeply regretful and humbled by his sins. He learned from his failures.

Rav Shaul referred to himself as the worst of all sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Also, although he recognized that he was an apostle, he described himself as “the least of the apostles.”

1 Corinthians 15:9-10For I am the least of the emissaries, unworthy to be called a emissary because I persecuted God’s community.(10)But by the grace of God I am what I am. His grace toward me was not in vain. No, I worked harder than them all—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.

Rav Shaul did not think God saved him because he was a good person. Rav Shaul realized that the opposite was true. God saved him as an example of his unlimited patience for those who believe in the Messiah.

1 Timothy 1:16 But this is precisely why I received mercy—so that in me, as the number one sinner, Yeshua the Messiah might demonstrate how very patient he is, as an example to those who would later come to trust in him and thereby have eternal life.

God brought unexpected (good) consequences.

Although Rav Shaul had been an active enemy of Yeshua and approved of killing Believers , God forgave him and used him to make a tremendous difference for the Kingdom of God.

God used Rav Shaul to bring many people to faith in Yeshua, to establish kehilot (churches), and to strengthen the body of Messiah

.God used Rav Shaul to write many letters that became part of the New Testament.

Lessons we can learn from Rav Shaul

Don’t give up because of your failures.

Learn from your failures, then dedicate your life to serving Yeshua.

Be humbled by your failures. Thank God for his forgiveness. Never consider yourself a “big shot,” regardless of your position.

Never give up on anybody. If Rav Shaul could learn from his failures, anyone can learn from his or her failures. If Rav Shaul could be saved, anyone could be saved.

Between Moses and Rav Shaul, we have some very good examples.