“Failure is not an Option”
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
September 16, 2021
A few months ago I came across a quote on the Internet. It so stood out for me that I had to go back and reread it several times. A recently graduated college student reported that she had learned from her mentor, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.”
This logic goes against the common thread of motivational thinking. The version of the quote with which most of us are familiar reads, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” This professor has taken that conventional wisdom and turned it on its ear. In thinking further about this quote, I have come to agree with the professor’s take, however. He teaches anything that is worth doing is worth doing poorly, because the alternative he identifies is that people might not even make the initial effort at all, if they feel they can’t succeed.
Many of us have become a slave to an ideal of perfection. We only want to undertake a project if we feel we have a guarantee of absolute success, of perfection. But more often than not, we will not find perfection; we will find ourselves part of a work in progress. Some may believe that since we cannot see a project to its full conclusion, since we cannot reach a perfected final product, we shouldn’t even make the effort in the first place. We have to be more accepting of the possibility of failure, or at least be willing to begin an endeavor whose ultimate outcome is uncertain. As Rabbi Tarfon teaches—in a statement I find so personally significant that I use it in my signature on emails—"Lo alecha ha-m’lacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibateil mimena—you are not required to complete the task, but you are not free to abstain from it altogether.” We may not be able to solve a problem single-handedly, but it is still incumbent upon us to make an effort, even if we fear we will not succeed.
The country of Finland has instituted a national day of failure. By learning to acknowledge that it is part of the human condition to make mistakes—not to always be perfect in every task we undertake, we begin to better understand our place in the world, our role to do good in the world. The holiday, which is observed on October 13 in case you want to start planning your guest list, originated in 2010 among Finnish college students. Failure has traditionally been frowned upon in Finnish culture, perhaps even more so than in the United States. Those who founded the observance noted that for Finland to become and remain a major player in global development and technology, the country would need to establish hundreds, if not thousands of new businesses. But those with the creativity and capital to create these new industries were perceived to be holding back from doing so because of a fear of failure.
Nowadays, events are held on university campuses across Finland. Significant figures in Finnish culture are invited to give keynote addresses and share posts on an official website to illustrate how making mistakes is a natural and healthy part of life that can build toward success, rather than detracting from it.
Interesting concept, right? It might even make you wish you could travel to Finland and check it out for yourself. Well, certainly if you have the desire to make such a journey, I’m not one to stop you. But I’m not sure a trip is really called for. After all, Yom Kippur is, in its own manner, our own day of failure.
As the Finns have identified, the word “failure” is quite heavy, and carries a very negative cultural connotation. But if we can set aside our pre-conceived notions about the weight of failure, I think we may come to see that Yom Kippur’s blessing to us is that it encourages us to shed daylight on our failings and missteps of the past year, but not to allow them to dominate us.
Chatanu. Avinu. Pashanu. We have sinned, we have transgressed, we have gone astray.
The story is told of a traveling salesman driving through a rural part of his route. He pulled up beside a barn to make his next pitch, and noticed that on the side of the barn were about a dozen or so bullseye targets. At the center of every single bullseye was an arrow. The salesman noticed that standing about twenty feet away, preparing to shoot another arrow, was a child, about eight years old.
“Did you shoot all these?” the salesman asked, incredulously.
“Sure did, Mister,” the child replied.
“That’s some talent! How did you manage to land on the bullseye every single time?”
“It was easy,” the child answered. “First I shot the arrows. Then, I drew the bullseye around them.”
None of us is perfect. None of us hits the bullseye every single time. In fact, one of the Hebrew words for “sin,” chet, literally means “to miss the mark.” When we cease to look upon mistakes and failures as character flaws, and begin to understand them as part of the reality of our existence, we may be surprised to find that acknowledging and learning from our mistakes ultimately gives us the tools to succeed. The fact that we have been given the opportunity to make teshuvah, to come to grips with our human foibles and failings, underscores the point: no person is a failure. Perhaps some of you out there need to hear those words again—no person is a failure. Our deeds may fail; our words may not have their intended impact; ideas that we have or projects that we undertake may not come to fruition. But no person is a failure. We are all beloved creations of the Holy One, given our moment on this planet in order that we might each fulfill a sacred purpose.
A few months ago, an intern for the HBO Max streaming service accidentally sent out a confusing email to a large portion of its subscriber list. The email’s subject line read “Integration Test Email Number One,” and the message simply said, “This template is used by integration tests only.”
In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t as terrible an error as it could have been. There was nothing profane or untoward about the text of the message; it didn’t spoil the finale of one of HBO’s shows, or grant free access to the paid service, and it didn’t spill any industry secrets. Still, it was an error that was frustrating to many of the higher-ups in the company, and the confusing wording of the email caused the company to find itself the butt of many jokes. Interns have been fired for lesser offenses.
But HBO took a different approach. A few hours after the email mix-up, the company posted on its Twitter account: “We mistakenly sent out an empty test email to a portion of our HBO Max mailing list this evening. We apologize for the inconvenience, and as the jokes pile in, yes, it was the intern. No, really. And we’re helping them through it.” The tweet concluded with a heart emoji.
This changed the narrative. Teasing tweets were soon replaced by tweets from individuals sending messages of support to the anonymous intern. The “Dear Intern” hashtag began to trend on Twitter as people recounted mistakes that they had made—and recovered from—when they had been interns or worked in entry-level positions. Perhaps we would all benefit if we shifted to this sort of “learn-from-your-mistakes” mentality.
Eddie Herbert, a platform engineer, wrote in one of the response tweets, “An engineering manager once told me, ‘Experience is what you gain from wins. Wisdom is what you learn from losses.’ Congratulations, you just earned some wisdom! Don’t be afraid to fail. Be afraid of not growing.”
We return each year to the act of teshuvah on Yom Kippur because we are not static creatures. We have had triumphs and we have had losses over the past year, and hopefully we have recognized growth within ourselves as a result. We pray that as God musters and numbers and considers each of us and our deeds on this Day of Judgment, that God recognizes the efforts we have made to walk in paths of truth and righteousness.
Several generations ago, as the leaders of Reform Judaism were compiling a machzor for the movement, a decision was made to abandon the traditional Torah reading for the morning of Yom Kippur. The reading comes from the book of Leviticus and details the sacrificial service. In particular, it underscores the ritual undertaken by Aaron and his fellow priests on Yom Kippur on behalf of the people. To briefly summarize, two goats would be brought forward. One would be offered as a sin offering, the other would undergo a ceremony whereby the priests would lay hands upon it and symbolically transfer the sins of the people to the animal. This was the climax of the Yom Kippur service in the days when the Temple stood.
One can imagine a number of reasons why the leaders of our movement discarded this text from our version of the Yom Kippur service. For one, we no longer engage in animal sacrifice and so the text may fail to resonate with contemporary Jews. But perhaps more significantly, the passage describes a fairly passive event. The act of teshuvah, and our overall understanding of this day, are far more meaningful when we are actively engaged. When we feel empowered and impelled to search deep within ourselves to find ways to atone for any misdeeds, and to repair any broken elements of our relationship with others and with God, the work takes on greater significance.
So instead of the narrative from Leviticus, the rabbis selected a passage that takes a wildly different approach toward our individual relationships with God. The passage, which we will read shortly, comes from the end of the book of Deuteronomy. Moses, knowing that he himself is ineligible to enter the Promised Land, is laying out important reminders for the Israelite community about the behavior that God expects of them when they do enter the land.
Moses begins this section of his speech by acknowledging the diversity of his audience. “You stand here this day,” he says, “tribal heads and chieftains; men, women and children; strangers residing among the community; water-drawers and woodchoppers…”. Moreover, Moses notes that the words he will share apply not only to the multitude that is physically present with him at that moment, but to anyone throughout history who would ever attach themselves to the community of Israel—those who lived long before Moses and those who were yet to be born. Then, Moses continues with one of the most revolutionary statements in the Torah. “This instruction,” Moses says, referring to the Torah, and to the body of Jewish thought and expression that would derive from it,” is not too baffling for you or far from you. It is not in the heavens…it is in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.”
I’m not the first to note that this passage helps to develop Judaism as an egalitarian notion, in which each individual has both the opportunity and the obligation to bring their own understanding of their relationship with God. But I think this text has particular resonance for this day of Yom Kippur, because it reminds us that so long as we make some effort, God deems our life a success. So long as we engage in some manner with the Divine and with our traditions—even if the manner of that engagement is to challenge and question and struggle and kick and scream at every stage of our journey—we have been told we will receive God’s blessing. We each set our own parameters for that level of engagement. And none of us is a failure in the eyes of God.
Remember: Play-Doh was intended to help clean soot off of wallpaper. Listerine mouthwash was originally marketed as a surgical antiseptic. Alexander Fleming nearly discarded the penicillin mold in his lab as a failed experiment. Each of these products, now well-known to the western world, were nearly abandoned by their inventors as failures. But because they took a moment to look at them from a different perspective, they were able to pivot and find success. Yom Kippur gives each of us the ability to do so with our own lives. And so, in this New Year 5782, may we each strive to pivot away from those behaviors and actions that have not brought meaning and happiness to our lives, in order that we may examine ourselves from within and permit our true colors to shine through.
Shana tova; g’mar chatimah tova.
 Information about the Finnish holiday was gleaned from “Why Finland Has a National Day of Failure,” on Culture Trip. Retrieved from https://theculturetrip.com/europe/finland/articles/why-finland-has-a-national-day-of-failure/, September 9, 2021.
 The HBO incident and Herbert’s response are drawn from a LinkedIn article. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/business/talent/blog/talent-acquisition/viral-response-to-hbo-interns-mistake?fbclid=IwAR3E_W_FacTV1pA-N_T2vYgbahOIEyljIhio2jQS3qakmKIVARb1BjBQBGk on September 12, 2021
 cf. Deuteronomy 29 and 30