We all experience failure in life. As much as we would like to protect our children from its agonizing grip, we objectively understand that we will not always be able to do so. They will experience it. We are therefore left to properly educate our children in the art of how to fail effectively.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemini, helps us in our efforts.
On the eighth and final day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle, Aaron and his sons fulfilled their priestly duties for the first time. Yet following Aaron’s conclusion of his service, Moshe joined him to enter the Tent of Meeting and bless the nation. Why was Moshe’s assistance suddenly appropriate?
Rashi quotes Torat Kohanim: Since Aaron had completed all he was instructed to do, but G-d’s glory had not yet descended from the heavens to the camp of Israel, Aaron was distressed, blaming the failure squarely on himself. In his embarrassment, he appealed to Moshe. Moshe entered with him and prayed for mercy, and then G-d’s glory descended into the camp.
Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz notes the lesson inherent in Aaron’s reaction. It is commonplace for those who are unsuccessful in their efforts — especially when their efforts are in a communal endeavor and very public — to blame others for their failure.
We say, “Had this person or that circumstance been more accommodating, I would have been able to do a better job.” Aaron however, did not look at the sins of the nation or blame any other cause for the lack of Divine response; he looked only to himself.
At the same time however, he did not allow this self-condemnation to hinder his personal growth or serve as an excuse to concede failure. He thought about next steps and asked for Moshe’s help, turning his experience into an opportunity for growth.
This then is the blueprint which Aaron bequeaths to all of us as well: When faced with failure, we first must look internally to correct our own flaws, and rather than despairing, we must always remain confident as we continue to problem-solve and plan more effective next steps.
However, the question remains: How can we effectively impart this formula to our children, so as to best help them grow into healthy, productive adults?
Parshat Shemini again comes to our aid — this time when discussing kosher animals and the two bodily symbols they require.
When listing examples of non-kosher animals which lack these symbols, each one ironically does have at least one, despite a host of species which have neither.
Why is this so?
Rabbi Avraham Pam answers that the Torah is teaching us the single most vital rule when helping a child to improve. These listed animals are not kosher ones, but they are close. The Torah goes out of its way to make sure they are aware of the positive attributes which they do have, thereby making clear that for which they still must strive.
When we help a child to make the right choices, we mustn’t just tell them what they are doing wrong, rather we must first tell them what is already good and special about them. Only then can we inform them of how they can improve. In this way, we train them to maintain their confidence, yet always look internally to correct any flaws.
Certainly, Aaron would agree that sometimes blame can also lay with someone else. But the timeless Torah lesson he conveys to us is this: In those initial moments of facing failure, does the G-d-conscious Jew look for someone to blame, or does he look to how he can build
himself, and thereby fix the world? JN
Rabbi Yisroel Weiner is the principal of Phoenix Hebrew Academy.