Sunday, September 15, 2013

Kol Nidre, 5774 - Our Failures

Kol Nidre 5774/2013 – Our Failures

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Temple Emanuel – Denver Colorado

My Dear Friends,

Several years ago, the NY Times printed the following transcript of an ACTUAL radio conversation between a U.S. naval ship and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland.

Canadians: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.

Americans: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.

Canadians: Negative. You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.


Canadians: This is a lighthouse.  Your call[1].

None of us would argue with the laws of physics.  You can’t move an immovable object.  Sometimes we need to acknowledge that there are things in our lives that are out of our control.  Yet all too often we enage in acts of self-delusion – we try to convince ourselves that we are immune from the realities of everyday life.  We don’t like to be wrong – we’re stubborn like that.  And yet, the truth is we are here tonight  - on this Kol Nidre eve – because we know that we are not perfect.  We do make mistakes – we have failed, we have missed the mark set before us.

At the beginning of this service, we heard Cantor Heit chant the hauntingly beautiful Kol Nidre.  This prayer speaks about our failures – our inability to carry out the commitments that we all take on ourselves.  And so – this is why we come here tonight - both out of habit and out of a compulsion to acknowledge our weaknesses, our imperfections and our failures.

Tonight, I want to talk about failure.  All of us fail – even though we don’t like to admit it.  We fail in our jobs, our relationships, our goals and visions for how we want to see ourselves.  We fail our spouses, our children, our parents and our friends.  Most of all, we fail ourselves.  To be human is to fail.  Not all of our failures are catastrophic, some aren’t even noticeable – but they are very real, nonetheless.

Failure is an integral part of our humanity – but I believe that it goes beyond our mortal selves – for even God fails.

Think about it: 

·        In the book of Genesis – there are two creation stories – one which details each day of creation and one that tells the story of the Garden of Eden.  But then, God sees the evil in the world and realizes that the first attempt was a failure.  Humanity is not following the path set before it.  And so God begins again – first with the flood, and then again with the Tower of Babel.  On two occasions, Moses is informed that God wants to destroy the Israelites after some spectacular failures – but Moses prevents this from happening.

·        In the Hindu faith – one of the primary manifestations of the god Shiva is that of destroyer of the world - clearing it of imperfections – so it can be recreated again.

·        In Christianity – Jesus never finishes his task of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth – his death  - his failure to deliver – becomes the basis of redemption

·        In Greek mythology – the gods are constantly battling one another for dominance….some win and some fail.

If you look at every major character in the Bible – most of them have spectacular failures:

·        Adam and Eve fail God’s test and are expelled from the Garden of Eden

·        Moses fails to heed God’s command and is prohibited from entering into the Promised Land.

·        Abraham lies about Sarah in Egypt and almost sacrifices his son on Mt Moriah

·        Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt

·        Isaac is deceived by Rebekah in order that Jacob might get the birthright over Esau

·        Jacob is deceived by his sons when they tell him that Joseph is dead

·        Joseph goes through a series of failures when he incurs the wrath of his brothers, is sold into slavery and then thrown into jail.

·        King David fails when he seduces Bath Sheba and has her husband killed

·        The list goes on and on……

If we look at our national heroes, we see a similar pattern:

·        Abraham Lincoln lost election after election before he finally became our sixteenth president

·        Susan B Anthony failed time and again as she pushed for the right for women to vote

·        Steve Jobs, Theodor Herzl, Albert Einstein, Golda Meir and so many other important figures of the past century failed spectacularly at some point in their lives,

And of course – over the past decades we have seen failures of epic proportion in our leaders:  From Nixon to Clinton, Weiner to Spitzer – the list goes on.

As a nation – we are obsessed with failure.    Stories of celebrities acting out are front page news – they sell magazines and boost the ratings of television programs.   One only need to see the amount of coverage Miley Cyrus and George Zimmerman have received in recent days – and how that coverage has overshadowed important world events - to see that this is true.

Why are we so obsessed with the missteps of our celebrities and leaders?  I believe it is because we like to be distracted - and in no small way - we like to remind ourselves that, no matter how famous, successful or wealthy someone is – they fail just like we do.

Unless and until we spend time with ourselves- confronting the agonies of our failures- we cannot comprehend or fully experience what it means to be truly alive.  Our failures and flaws – and the way we deal with them – are not fatal – rather they are  tests of our own humanity.  And we are being tested all the time:

·        The everyday tests of life are not graded in order to determine whether we pass or fail. 

·        The everyday tests of life are not about reward or punishment, they are about character.

·        The everyday tests of life are cumulative. They determine our personality, our morality, our humanity.  Each test that we face paves the way for the next one and the next and the next…. And it is only through the passage of time that we can measure their impact upon us.

As we go through our daily lives we constantly make choices about the way that we interact with others and conduct our daily affairs.   Sometimes the tests are very simple:

·        Do we say hello to our neighbors as we leave for work?

·        Do we return the extra change that the cashier has given us by mistake?

·        Do we pay full attention to the person sitting in front of us -  when what we really are thinking about is what we are going to have for lunch in 10 minutes?

·        Do we rush through the yellow light even though we could have stopped?

Sometimes, the tests are more difficult:

·        Do we declare to the IRS that extra income we received by selling our car for cash?

·        Do we avoid making that phone call to our sick friend?

·        Do we cut corners in our work or scrimp or reduce the quality of our output to make a few extra dollars?

Too many of us have lost track of this essential fact.   Ours is a society that values results over reason, profit over potential and winning over everything else.  Often, because of this, when people come face to face with the prospect of failure – they don’t know what to do.

Some people think that it is worse to fail than to cheat.

A story is told of a young Irishman named Murphy who applied for an engineering position at a firm based in Dublin. An American applied for the same job and both applicants, having the same qualifications, were asked to take a test by the Department manager.

Upon completion of the test both men only missed one of the questions. The manager went to Murphy and said, "Thank you for your interest, but we’ve decided to give the American the job."

Said Murphy: "And why would you be doing that? We both got 9 questions correct. This being Ireland and me being Irish I should get the job!"

The manager replied: "We have made our decision not on the correct answers, but on the question you missed."

Murphy: "And just how would one incorrect answer be better than the other?"

Manager: "Simple. The American put down on question # 5, ‘I don’t know.’ You put down ‘Neither do I.’

Think of all of the sports heroes who have been recently disgraced because of their use of banned substances.   Lance Armstrong is a prime example.   In many sports, doping was so endemic that it was a pre-requisite for success.

Cheating has become commonplace on High School and College campuses around the country.  If you want to know prevalent it is, all you have to do is try this simple test:  Go to any internet search engine and type in the words “term papers for sale.”   You will find hundreds of sites designed to sell term papers and dissertations to students.  Interestingly enough, there are just as many sites set up for teachers to detect and catch cheaters.  My guess is that the same companies that sell the term papers also sell a product that tells the teachers how to catch the cheaters.  Think about that for a moment…..  Cheating and fighting cheating has become big business.

Students who learn to cheat in school go on to cheat in life.

Why is there so much cheating?  Because we are afraid to make mistakes! We equate making a mistake with failure, and failure is perceived as a weakness.  As a result “Win – at any expense!”  has become the mantra of a generation.

This is no small problem.  One of the most terrifying statistics I have recently seen is the fact that suicide is the third leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24 in our nation[2].  The Third leading cause of  death…..

Why are so many young people taking their own lives?  What are the messages we are broadcasting  that might be contributing to this terrible statistic?  Why are we not shouting from the rooftops that this preventable tragedy must be addressed?

What must we do?  I don’t have all the answers – it’s a much bigger question than can be addressed in a Kol Nidre sermon – but I will say this: 

We need to learn for ourselves, and then teach our children, that mistakes are not tragic - they are inevitable, they are a necessary part of life.

When our daughter, Elana was in middle school, we went to sixth grade parents’ night at the beginning of her school year. There, we met with each of her teachers and learned about the expectations that were set out for all of the students.  One class, in particular, drew my interest.  Her art teacher explained how each student was required to create a sketchbook of their own drawings.  There were only two rules for use of these sketchbooks.

1.     You have to draw at least a half an hour a week.

2.     You can’t erase your mistakes -- you have to leave them on the page.

What a wonderful concept!  It goes far beyond art lessons. 

·        You can’t erase your mistakes – you have to look at them so that you don’t make them again.

·        You can’t erase your mistakes – instead you need to understand them and use them as guideposts for future progress.

·        You can’t erase your mistakes – but you can show them to other people in your life so that they might be able to learn from them as well as you.

The truth is, we all should carry around some kind of metaphorical sketchbook.  We could see both our progress and our mistakes. Instead of running from our failures – we can learn from them – we can grow from them.  Life is not supposed to be smooth.  Everything will not always be perfect.

I recently came across the following poem: 

The Guest-House

This being human is a guest-house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they're a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond[3].

One of the main reasons that we are here tonight on the Kol Nidre Eve is to acknowledge the fact that we are all tested – and that we are all flawed. 

Our tradition provides us with a mechanism to deal with and learn from failures:

Tomorrow morning we shall recite the Unetaneh Tokef Prayer where we pray the ancient and chilling words:  “Who shall live and who shall die….” At the end of the prayer we say the following:

U’teshuvah, U’tefillah, U’tzeddakah ma-a-vi-rim et roa ha g’zerah.”

And Repentance, Prayer and Charity, temper God’s severe decree.

These three concepts – central to what this day of Atonement is all about – teach us how to understand and accept the daily tests, the successes and the failures we experience.


Yom Kippur teaches us that failure is important - because it leads us to repentance. Teshuvah - repentance - is the way to get beyond the sticking point.  In the Torah, Jacob cheats Esau and 20 years later he goes to meet him with gifts and apologies.  Teshuvah means turning - re-turning to a place where we can begin again.  That is what these holidays are all about.  God does not demand perfection.  If God did, then there would be no need for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur because in a world where perfection is mandated - there could be no repentance - all would be in black and white.  We, however, live in a world with varying shades of grey. 


Confronting our failures is not easy.  It can be lonely and frightening.  Because of this we have Tefillah – prayer.  Prayer certainly is not a cure - but it is a method of transforming ourselves and our lives.  It provides us with a way of reaching out and connecting to something greater than ourselves.  Prayer tells us to slow down - to look around us, to appreciate the world that God has given us. Since prayer is a communal experience, when we come together in prayer we realize that we are not alone. Prayer/Tefillah moves us outside the realm of our failures by forcing us to come together and admit that there are things that we lack in our lives.

The real questions of prayer are not: "Can I pray?" or Should I pray?", but rather, "What should I pray for?" and How will I know if my prayers have been answered?"

The answers to these questions are strangely simple.  "What should we pray for?"  I'll tell you.  Pray for a sense of gratitude.  Pray that you might be grateful for all of the good that happens to you.    And while you're at it, pray that others might do the same too.

You'll know that your prayers have been answered when you feel a sense of satisfaction - of gratitude for who you are - not what you have;  What you can do , not what you own.  You'll know that your prayers have been answered when, instead of hiding from your failures, you cheer on others’ successes.


And finally, we come to Tzeddakah.  Tzeddakah is not merely “charity”.  It is best understood as acts of righteousness – of working to perfect this all too imperfect world in which we live.

Tzeddakah is essential for coming to understand the meaning and purpose of the tests that we undergo every day. 

·        To have a life filled with Tzeddakah is to act and live with a sense of responsibility.

·        To have a life filled with Tzeddakah is share what you have learned with others.

·        To have a life filled with Tzeddakah is to take the gratitude that we have discovered from prayer and to apply it to the world in which we live. 

·        To have a life filled with Tzeddakah is to acknowledge that if we have learned anything from our failures then we must share that knowledge with others. 

My friends, when we come to terms with our failures – and with the necessity to understand and assimilate them within ourselves, the next step is to to look around us and see the fact that all of us have failed – at some point in our lives.

How many of us are holding grudges against family members and friends who have failed us?  How many relationships have been poisoned by our stubborn unwillingness to see the same flaws in ourselves that we condemn in others?

Every year – on Yom Kippur – I say the same thing:  Now is a time to both ask for forgiveness and grant forgiveness to those who are estranged from our lives. 

I know how difficult this can be.  I know that there are some actions that truly are unforgiveable….but not all.  All of us are tested.  We all fail some of the time.

We also are all mortal – why wait until it is too late to make amends?  The time is now – there may never be a better moment to mend a broken relationship.  We never know what tomorrow may bring.

My friends, tonight we stand before God.  All pretense is gone.  All of our defenses are down.  We stand together as a community who acknowledges that we are all flawed.  Let the awareness that we are not alone give us comfort and the ability to work even harder to learn from our failures and our flaws.  And in the process of doing so, let us make ourselves, our congregation and our world just a little more holy.

AMEN – Chatimah Tovah – May we all be inscribed for blessing in the book of Life.


[1] NYTimes 7/5/98, p. 7 Week in Review
[3] Say I Am You: Poetry Interspersed with Stories of Rumi and Shams, Translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks, Maypop, 1994.

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