When Failure Is Really Success

We all fail every now and then. We fall victim to impulses like temptation and pride and we make poor choices that we know are wrong. With time, these failures add up and we find ourselves “shlepping” them along throughout life, like heavy baggage weighing down on our consciousnesses. In the case of many, this leads to feelings of unhealthy guilt or even depression and wreaks havoc on their relationships. If only – we find ourselves wishing – we could just turn back the clock and get a second chance at whatever it was we messed up with.


How does one free himself of this baggage? How do we stay positive, happy and undeterred without allowing our failures and setbacks to drag us down?


Chassidus not only provides a solution but actually offers a radical and daring perspective here. Not only are these failures not our worst enemy; they’re actually our biggest ally. The worst decisions we make are in fact the biggest gifts of opportunity that fall into our laps. Once we train ourselves to view them in this way life becomes so much lighter and brighter. We become happier and burden free people; and can live with the confidence that nothing can ever take us down.


In the Book of Michah (ch. 7:15) it states: “Like the days of your leaving from Egypt, I will show you wonders.” Chassidus asks the obvious question: It only took one day to leave Egypt; why does Micha use the word days in its plural form? It answers[1] that in essence the exodus from Egypt was just the beginning of a process which culminates with the future redemption. Ever since leaving Egypt we are engaged in a constant journey of liberation, continuously edging closer and closer to the finish line – the coming of Moshiach. This process is never interrupted. There are no setbacks or pitfalls along the way to redemption and since the exodus we have only progressed further along this course[2].


How can this be? How can we claim that this process is never interrupted, when we all clearly experience ups and downs? Yes there are times we indeed go up – moving closer to the redemption but there are also times that we plunge downward, fall and stumble – moving further away from Moshiach. How can we possibly argue that there has only ever been forward progress?


The Rebbe, in an unassuming footnote[3] proceeds to answer this question with what I believe is one of the most revolutionary insights Chassidus has to offer.But first let us venture off for a second and propose the following profoundly philosophical question. G-d created the world for a purpose; namely that we humans create a dwelling place for Him within this lowly world. At the same time G-d also gave us free choice and every person is truly free to choose whatever path in life they want. The question thus arises: Is it possible for G-d’s purpose in creation to never be realized? Say that hypothetically we exercise our free choice in choosing to abandon our G-d given mission; would that mean that G-d’s plan would fail and He would be helpless to do anything about it?


The answer is obviously and unequivocally no! G-d’s plan cannot fail and the Divine purpose for creation must be realized. In fact we must say that ever since creation, the world has been on a continuous journey upward, moving only closer to the realization of G-d’s purpose and never taking a step back. But here again the question arises: what about all the failings and failures we all go through in life? How can these not be a setback in the mission of making a dwelling place for G-d in this world?


To answer this we need to explain the concept of “Yeridah Tzoirech Aliyah” – “the descent is necessary for the ascent.” The implication of this is that in order to ascend one must first descend. The “Yeridah” is an absolute requirement to be able to progress and without it the growth is not possible. But why is this so? What is the logic behind this principle?


There are two types of progress: gradual and exponential. Gradual progress is the steady, predictable and natural growth that occurs by taking one step at a time. Exponential progress is the unpredictable leap; when we jump into completely new and unfamiliar territory. We enter a realm that is completely incomparable to our previous state and the distance between the point of departure and destination is infinite.


No “Yeridah” is necessary for making gradual progress; the person can easily take a step forward without having to “step back” first. But when it comes to exponential progress, a “Yeridah” is required. Since the desired destination is nothing like the previous state, the previous state actually prevents the person from achieving the new goal. As long as he clings to his old state, he will be infinitely far from the new place he is attempting to jump into. One must first “fall” from his previous state and only then — when he is nowhere — can he leap into the entirely new plain.


A beautiful example of this is the story of the famed Amorah – Rabbi Zeira. He had been living in Babylon where had studied the Babylonian Talmud but decided one day to immigrate to the land of Israel where the Jerusalemite Talmud was primarily studied. The Gemara relates that upon embarking on this journey Rabbi Zeira fasted one hundred fasts, in prayer – asking G-d to make him forget the Babylonian Talmud so that he would be able to study the Jerusalemite Talmud. Why was it necessary for him to forget Babylonian Talmud before learning the Jerusalemite Talmud? The Jerusalemite Talmud is infinitely superior to the Babylonian and therefore as long as Rabbi Zeira was under the influence of the Babylonian Talmud he would unable to properly grasp it. Only by experiencing a “Yeridah” and forgetting the Babylonian Talmud could he take the leap into this entirely new dimension and study the Talmud of Jerusalem.


This process is also referred to as “Yesh Ayin Yesh. In order to progress from one state to a new incomparable one, one must pass through a state of Ayin where he is nowhere and has nothing. It is only through “falling” to this state of nothingness, that reaching a new level becomes possible.


Based upon this, the Rebbe suggests an amazing, radical and revolutionary idea. From G-d’s perspective there is no such thing as a “Yeridah” or setback. The world in general and every person individually can and do only move forward. Even when we “fall” and stumble, in reality we are just growing and progressing. The fall is nothing but an integral and required step in the growth process, since reaching the higher level is impossible without it. Failing is thus the ultimate gift because only it allows for exponential growth; without it a person would be forever stuck on the same level.


It is indeed the case therefore that ever since creation we have only moved closer the fulfillment of the Divine purpose and ever since the exodus we have only moved closer to the final redemption. This is true on global level as well as on an individual level[4].

Let us imagine a person climbing a spiral staircase to the second story of a building. As he climbs there are times that he faces the entrance way into the second story and times when he turns his back to it. But even as he turns away from the entrance, he is simultaneously climbing higher and getting closer to his destination. This is precisely how life works. We are all continuously climbing higher and “real” falling is not possible. Our failings are merely like the turning of our backs away from our destination and mission but even as we do this we are still going up the spiral staircase of life[5].


So the next time you fail or experience a setback, instead of feeling guilty or depressed, realize that in reality all that happened was G-d provided you with a gift – a chance to take a major leap forward. The only bags we should be lugging around with us are the ones filled with opportunity and positivity; any other baggage simply doesn’t exist.


When one has this perspective, life is only but a direct joyride towards Moshiach with no stops or delays along the way.


Reprinted with permission from Meaningful Life Center.


[1] See Kimei Tzeischa, 5708

[2] Likkutei Sichos vol 3, Shemini

[3] Likkutie Sicos ibid

[4] As for the matter of free choice; it only can determine the pace and style of a person’s growth not if he will succeed or fail in his mission. See the Sicha and footnote for further clarification.

[5] If so why are we punished for sinning? It is because this is not the intention of the sinner. Even though he is in essence reaching higher, his intention was to sin and for this intention he is punished. See the Sicha and footnote for further clarification.