I want to begin by sharing with you words by a famous individual—they write this:
“…it is fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.…by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”
Do you know who said these words? Surely someone down in the dumps. Someone we might pity. Someone about whom we might say: thank goodness that’s not me. Actually, these are the words of JK Rowling—brilliant author of one of the most well-known series in the world—Harry Potter. It turns out, Ms. Rowling was not always who she is today and at one point in her life, was, as she put it, “the biggest failure she knew.”
So why, here on this beautiful Shabbat evening would we talk about something so unShabbaty, so embarrassing, so detestable as failure?
Because it would be hard to read Parshat Vaera and ignore the fact that Moses spends 6 whole plagues and the majority of ink used to write this Torah portion failing at the most important moment of his life to date.
Moses is charged with taking the people out of Egypt—redeeming the oppressed slaves, and getting them out of this dark chapter of our narrative. In last week’s portion, God said to him: l’cha v’eshlach’chah el Paro—come, I will send you to Pharaoh and you shall free my people, the Israelites, from Egypt.
Now, we’ve read ahead, so we know that Moses does ultimately succeed in this task. With lamb’s blood on our doors, and some very gruesome plagues behind us, we do eventually follow Moses out of Egypt.
But to tell just THAT part of Moses’ story without acknowledging this part would deny Moses his own truth, package up for ourselves some shiny happy go lucky leader, and would excise from Moses’ experience the most formative moments of his life. In Parshat Vaera, we find Moses failing over and over and over again.
Plague after divine plague, he tells pharaoh to let his people go. And plague after plague, Pharaoh agrees. And then once the plague has subsided, Pharaoh reneges on his promise and Moses is back to square one.
Nile turns to blood? Fine you can go. The blood is over? Forget what I said. Frogs invade all of Egypt? Stop this plague and I will free you. No more frogs? I take it back, you’re staying. Lice covering the bodies of every Egyptian? We are so itchy—yes, I’ll free you! The lice is gone? Just kidding, I own you and your people. And instantly, Moses knows he will have to try again.
When we look at this Moses character, we should expect to find a broken man, no? A shell of a human being, ashamed, so dejected that he can hardly stand, let alone continue this task that God has asked of him. And yet.
And yet, that’s not how we find Moses at all. This Torah portion reads like a crescendo. With every failed mission, every rejected plague, each time he is tricked by Pharaoh and so does not achieve the outcome he wants—he seems somehow stronger. Braver. More sure of himself, and more driven. He stands up straighter, more dignified, more powerful. So much so that by the last plague we read about in this portion—a fiery hail raining down—he calls his own failure like Babe Ruth calling his homerun. Pharaoh says—yes, I will let you go, just stop this awful hail. And Moses says—Oh, I will stop it. But you will not let us go because you do not fear God. As if to say—I will fail again, I am sure of it this time.
So how is it that Moses is not crushed, but is instead spurred on? Moses has learned what Rowling would describe in her own life. She says this:
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default. …Failure gave me—she continued—an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; and friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies. The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.”
Consider what Moses would have to go and do next. Days from this moment, he is going to have to lead the people for 40 years in the wilderness to get to the Promised Land. What does all of this failing, and yet still surviving, do for him? Does it maybe give him the armor, the self-understanding, the self-forgiveness, and the strength he will require for that journey?
Rowling—and Moses—remind us: failure is not a shameful thing, it is a human thing. It is the consequence of trying something new, or bold, or hard for us. For each of us what is hard today is going to be something different—it may be something that seems easy to someone else or it may be something another person would not attempt.
But trying that thing means that we are willing to risk failure. And there is great holiness in that open-hearted, kind of afraid, ready as we’re ever gonna be, trying. Because it means we could—and probably will at some point—fail.
And we can let it crush us, or we can let it teach us. We can let it cause us shame—our failures—or we can let it unearth our humanity, our exquisite vulnerability, our inherent resilience.
What are you risking you right now? What are you trying at and failing so far? Or failing parts of? What is your failing teaching you? What are your failures sacred edges? What and who has your failing helped you to become?
Doing something—anything—that is important—means we are bound to fail sometimes. We could always play it safe and never have a set-back—that is possible—but the world doesn’t promise us in going that route that we will get stronger from our actions, save the wizarding world from death eaters, or free a people from slavery.
So how do we fail well? Are you familiar with Black Panther? Every time Black Panther is shot or hit, his suit, which is made of vibranium, absorbs the hit, taking in the energy of that which has tried to knock him down.
It stores up all these hits and when he is ready, Black Panther is then able to take all of that energy and return the attack to overcome exactly that which has been beating him down. This is what JK Rowling did. This is what Moses does.
This is what we can do. As a congregation working through a challenging time, as individuals navigating this complex world, as a community trying to make this world a better place. May we have the courage to fail sometimes because we have attempted hard things, important things. And when we do fail, may we find that we are strong enough to recover, to survive, and to continue our journey forward.