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Celebrating Failure

Holman illustration of Golden Calf

When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. — Exodus 32:19

The Torah portion for this week is Naso, from Numbers 4:21–7:89, along with special Torah readings for Shavuot, Exodus 19:1–20:23 and Deuteronomy 14:22–16:17.

Shavuot, also known as the Festival of Weeks, celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments to the children of Israel, and through them, to the entire world. It was on this day, the sixth day of the Hebrew month Sivan, more than three thousand years ago, that Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets in hand. We celebrate this day with festive meals, special prayer services, and as in the days of the Temple, by bringing offerings to God.

However, if you think about it, it’s a little strange to celebrate on this particular day. Remember the rest of the story? What happened when Moses came down the mountain? Or rather, what happened while he was up there?

That’s right — the sin of the Golden Calf. While Moses was up on Mount Sinai, the children of Israel waited for him below. According to their calculations, he was late, so they decided to “replace” him by creating an idol – a golden calf. So when Moses left the lofty heights of heavens, he came down to an idolatrous nation! We all know what happens next – Moses threw down the two tablets, shattering them into pieces.

So, why do we celebrate on this tragic day? It wasn’t until Yom Kippur, four months later, that God gave over new tablets – and those were the ones that lasted. Surely it would make more sense to celebrate then!

The Jewish sages explain that we celebrate the day that the original tablets were given, even though it’s also the day that we failed to receive them, because failure is part of every success.

We may not have received the commandments on that day, but that day was a step closer to the day that we would. When children are learning to walk, we celebrate their first steps even though there are still many tumbles to follow. We don’t wait for the day that the child walks perfectly – we celebrate the first step, which is inevitably followed by the first fall.

Do you know what happened to the first set of tablets? Their broken pieces were kept inside the Holy Ark, which followed the children of Israel wherever they would go. Why? Because our failures are just as much a part of who we are as our achievements. Our failures contribute to our success as equally as our accomplishments do.

So next time you fail at something, (as we all inevitably will), fight the urge to commiserate and instead, celebrate! It’s our broken pieces that ultimately make us whole. As the author C.S. Lewis put it, “Failures are the finger posts on the road to achievement.” Every time we fail, we are closer to success. And that’s a reason to celebrate.

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President

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