Despite an MVP-like performance by quarterback Jalen Hurts, the Philadelphia Eagles lost this year’s Super Bowl. After the game, Hurts vowed to use the game as a "teachable moment." “You either win or you learn," Hurts declared. "You know, as always, win, lose or draw, I always reflect on the things that I could’ve done better, the things we could’ve done better to try and take that next step. And that’ll be the same process that goes on now… Obviously, we had a big-time goal in the end that we wanted to accomplish, and we came up short. I think the beautiful part about it is everyone experiences different pains, different agonies of life, but you decide if you want to learn from it, you decide if you want to use that to be a teachable moment, and I know what I’ll do.”
This week’s parsha contains one of the greatest Jewish failures of all time. When Moshe descends to find the people passionately and enthusiastically worshiping the Eigel, he instinctively and intuitively throws down the luchos and smashes them into pieces. Note that Hashem didn’t instruct Moshe to break the luchos, he did it on his own. These luchos were no small matter; they were the handiwork of the Almighty. They were a miraculous expression of divine intervention; for example, the letters samech and mem had insides that supernaturally remained suspended in air.
God fashioned these tablets and Moshe—in one motion, in a fit of rage—destroys them. I can only imagine the millisecond of silence when Moshe realizes exactly what he has done and is waiting to see how God will react. However, we have a tradition that Hashem tells Moshe yasher ko’ach she’shibarta. Indeed, this is the origin of the expression “yasher ko’ach.” God gives His consent.
But what happens next? Did he get a broom and sweep them up? Does he step over the shattered pieces to descend further to rebuke the people? The Torah never tells us what happened to the luchos, but the Gemara does.
The Gemara says “luchos v’shivrei luchos munachin ba’aron,” in fact, the broken, shattered pieces were gathered, collected, and carefully placed in the aron to sit right next to the whole, complete, second set of tablets.
Why were the broken tablets kept? Why not discard them? After all, they serve no purpose and have been replaced by new ones? The real estate of the ark is precious, why take up room with this seemingly superfluous item?
John Maxwell is the author of 24 books on maximizing personal and leadership potential. In his book “Failing Forward” he argues that "the difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure." There is no shortage of stories about highly accomplished people who overcame early failures. Abraham Lincoln lost eight elections, failed in business many times, and suffered a nervous breakdown. The Beatles were turned down for a record deal because they were told their sound wasn't appealing. Michael Jordan cried when he was cut from his high school basketball team. These individuals used their failures to launch success. They didn’t become paralyzed or complacent, but rather regrouped and pressed forward.
What is the message of the chet ha’eigel? Why does it play such a prominent role for us in the Torah and even in ritual life? Why is this the passage we read on fast days? The Gemara in Avodah Zarah tells us explicitly that the story occurred and is studied to teach of the possibility and power of teshuva. While we mostly focus and concentrate on how and why they could have worshiped an eigel, I think instead it is worth examining how the Jews recovered from such a massive, collective failure.
The lesson of the eigel is not that they made a mistake, that they failed. The lesson is seen through their will, determination and resolve to pick up the pieces, literally and figuratively, and to succeed.
Indeed, Shelomo Hamelech tells us in Mishlei that sheva yipol tzadik v’kam, seven times a tzadik falls and gets up. The commentaries explain that the tzadik analyzes and studies his failures and failings and when he gets up he emerges a tzadik by correcting his mistakes. The essence of the tzaddik's rising again is directly by way of his seven falls, whereas a rasha just falls deeper and deeper.
Luchos v’shivrei luchos munachim ba’aron. The broken pieces are saved to remind us that our failures and mistakes are not to be discarded, eliminated, and forgotten from our memories. We can only succeed when we remember the broken experiences and use the lessons learned as springboards to success.
When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he tried over 2,000 experiments before he got it to work. A young reporter asked him how it felt to fail so many times. He responded, “I never failed once. I invented the light bulb. It just happened to be a 2000-step process.” Our failures, our broken luchos, are steps to a process of success.
Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner wrote a beautiful letter to a student who was very discouraged:
A failing many of us suffer from is that when we consider the aspects of perfection of our sages, we focus on the ultimate level of their attainments, while omitting mention of the inner struggles that had previously raged within them. A listener would get the impression that these individuals came out of the hand of their Creator in full-blown form. Everyone is awed at the purity of speech of the Chofetz Chaim, z.t.l., considering it a miraculous phenomenon. But who knows of the battles, struggles and obstacles, the slumps and regressions that the Chofetz Chaim encountered in his war with the yetzer hara (evil inclination)? There are many such examples, to which a discerning individual such as yourself can certainly apply the rule. The English expression, ‘Lose a battle and win a war’ applies. Certainly you have stumbled, and will stumble and in many battles you will fall lame. I promise you, though, that after those losing campaigns you will emerge from the war with the laurels of victory upon your head. Lose battles but win wars.
While we don’t strive for failure, we embrace it and learn from it. Winston Churchill said it most succinctly: “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
Michael Jordan, a man associated with success in his field as much as anyone alive, famously said, “I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over in my life. And that is why I succeed.” The six-time NBA champion, five-time MVP, and certified athletic legend… attributes all his success to his failures.
Our challenge in life is not to be perfect. That is unattainable and, according to Shlomo Hamelech, it is in some way undesirable, for one cannot become a tzadik without falling. The challenge is to carry both sets of luchos with us, to take pride in our successes and seek to repeat them and to recall and learn from our failures and be determined to transcend them.