Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Learning from Mistakes

What is the key ingredient of success? What characteristic does every successful person share? Interviews with highly successful people have shown that the one quality all had in common was that they were dedicated to learning from their mistakes. It wasn't that they didn't make mistakes. Many had their lives littered with them. Rather is was that they were determined that the mistakes they made would serve as lessons from which they would learn and grow.

In the parsha of Eikev that we read this coming Shabbat it seems the Torah is revealing to us this great truth. In the course of Moshe's words of challenge to the Israelites before his death Moshe tells them that they need be wary lest they come to think that the land they are about to inherit was given to then due to their own merit. Moshe is emphatic in stating that they need to recognize that they the People were essentially undeserving of this great gift and only the wickedness of the Peoples who lived there prior and the promise G-d made to their parents were reasons Hashem gave them the land to inherit.
The warning concludes "And you should know that not due to your own merit does Hashem your G-d give you this good land to inherit because you are a stiff necked nation". Moshes then reviews the recent history of Israel's wilderness journey where they committed one sin after another beginning with the worship of the Golden Calf and ending with the story of the spies.

The lesson Moshe is teaching his nation is easily understood. They need to recognize their flaws and not take accomplishment in inheriting the land as a sign of virtue.
But the question we might well ask is why does Moshe tell the people that the reason they are undeserving is because of their "stiff-neckedness". Surely that flaw pales in comparison to the flaws of a lack of faith in G-d, a lack of gratitude, a national cowardice, all flaws that Moshe seems to remind them of in the stories he recounts to prove to the People their essential unworthiness. Why does Moshe say it is the nation's stubbornness that makes them unworthy to the gift of the land on their own merit?

I believe the answer to our question has very much to do with the opening idea of the blog. Yes, for sure the Israelites made mistakes. They sinned time after time.
But it is not the individual sin, no matter how grave, that makes them unworthy in their own merit to inherit Israel. On the contrary, they likely did t'shuva and repented after each sin. Surely they did after the sin of the Golden Calf. Moshe brought down the Second Tablets with the Decalogue on them on Yom Kippur. And after the debacle with the Spies immediately the nation asks for forgiveness and to enter the land. No, its not the sin itself that made inheriting the land of Israel beyond their grasp. It was the fact that the nation refused to learn from its mistakes. They were stubborn. They repented but it did not prevent them from making the same essential mistakes time and time again. They refused to learn their lesson.

It is for this reason Moshe recounts the stories of the nations failures, one upon another. Not to show they are a sinful people but rather to show their stiff- neckedness. One failure did not serve to prevent another. They would not learn from experience. And if to succeed is to learn from our mistakes no failure can be greater than to resist that learning. To refuse to use ones failures to make correction and grow means to be condemned to repeat the failures. A nation doomed to repeat its sinful pattern of behavior is not one worthy of being master of the land of Israel.

The lesson the Torah is teaching us is critical to the quality of our lives. Most of us have the same resistance to learning from our failures that our stiff necked ancestors had. The question is why? We often feel guilty. We even repent with tears and regrets. Why then do we not learn from our mistakes and so often repeat them in one form or another again and again? Why do we resist the learning?

The answer is that to learn from our mistakes we have to do more than acknowledge our sin or self destructive behavior. We need to analyze it, investigate it, explore our motivations. To learn from our mistakes we need to understand why we made them in all their nuances. We need see what in us got hooked into this error and why. To do that work is painful. It means we have to sit in our failure and swim around in it. To do the work of learning our lesson from failures confessing regrets, no matter how sincere, is not enough. We need to learn from our mistakes about what tempts us and to what we are vulnerable. It would be so much easier if we could express our guilt and resolve to not err again and move on. That avoids the shame and embarrassment we feel in having to mull over our wrong and live for awhile mired in the muck.

Yet not unpacking the fullness of the story of our failures including why we made them serves to keep us stuck in a pattern where we are doomed to make ths same mistake or one similar to it again and again. Only a full self and circumstance evaluation affords the chance to learn the precise lesson we need to learn so we don't repeat the mistake and so we indeed can grow from our experience.

Stiff-neckedness is a trait that belongs to most of us in the face of mistakes whether they be in sinful behavior, in personal relationships, or in matters of money. Over and over we err in a similar fashion. Each time we pledge it will be better next time, but to no avail. We simply struggle to tolerate sitting with our failure so we can see the precise causes of it, discern what we need to learn, and how we need to grow.

To inherit the promised land meant for us as persons we need to learn the lesson taught our foreparents in the wilderness. We can make mistakes in life, indeed many mistakes, and still reach the promised land. Only our refusal to learn from our mistakes bars our entry. Only our refusal to explore our errors and discern the precise nature of our vulnerability limits our potential.

Shabbat Shalom

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