Perfecting Failure

Tzipporah Leah Greenberg, Hallandale Beach, Florida
Essays 2019 / Personal Growth

Have you ever confronted circumstances in life where you feel you’re just not good enough? How should we interpret and react to failures and shortcomings? Does G-d want us to beat ourselves up over them? Call it quits?

A number of years ago, a psychologist by the name of Carol S. Dweck Ph.D. published Mindset, a book to revolutionize the psychology of success. It sold 1.8 million copies in print as of 2016. According to Dr. Dweck’s research, there are two types of mindsets: the growth mindset and its inverse, the fixed mindset. The fixed mindset takes root in the belief that people are born with established and invariable areas of aptitude and weakness, just as they are born with immutable DNA. This implies that a task implementing a skill evaluates an individual’s competence in that particular area for eternity. The fixed mindset demands that one always be perfect, their worth is established by their superiority. Those possessing this notion exhibit an inability to cope with failure and a lower rate of success than their growth-oriented counterparts. In contrast, those with the growth mindset recognize that with effort, they may grow in fields they were once deficient in. This enables them to convert challenges and failures into springboards for success.(1)

This perspective on the importance of recognizing the genuine role of confronting challenge is subtly reiterated throughout Torah and expounded on extensively in Chassidus. Upon closer examination, one could say that the fixed mindset is a tool of the evil inclination to inhibit growth and self-improvement. This concept occupies much of the Tanya’s discussion of the Beinoni, Hayom Yom, and letters from the seventh Chabad Rebbe. This essay will attempt to delve into the mentality behind the spiritual perfectionist, discover the growth mindset that is at the core of Judaism, and advance a solution to transform past mistakes from limitations into inspirations.

Is a Spiritual Shortcoming a Stumbling Block or a Springboard?

Some gems in life go almost undetected until one is mature enough to cherish them. Such was my relationship with Chassidus prior to my later adolescence. In this paragraph, I will outline my personal journey to a deep and lasting connection to Chassidus.

As humans, we tend to categorize. In Yiddishkeit, there are three prominent ranks that are ingrained in our minds as young children: 1. the righteous tzaddik 2. the evil rasha and 3. the beinoni (the intermediate).(2) Naturally, upon learning this, a child skips out of cheder (school) at the day’s conclusion with three images in their head: the murderer, the flawless tzaddik, and the undefined beinoni. Hopefully, as innocent preschoolers, we are confident that although we may throw an occasional tantrum, we are in the same league as the tzaddik.

Eventually, our perceptions of ourselves and of the definition of a rasha mature, and we observe that the nefesh habahamis (the animal soul) exerts far more influence on us than is befitting him. The scale that we are taught measures good versus sinful deeds may begin tipping in our minds. This can cause a very fixed perception of our spiritual identity.

When I was young, I was under the impression that the Next World appeared as a courtroom with two gates: Those whose good deeds outweighed the bad were sent to the gate of heaven, casting an unsympathetic glance toward their villainous companions who were dragged to the adjacent barred stake. If we are to bare the label of the perfect tzaddik, abhorrent rasha or non-existent beinoni, the only way to function spiritually is through the knowledge that ultimately, we are among the righteous. This results from the implied message that the rasha is a static, evil personality. There is little knowledge of any middle ground and the tzaddik, as a perfect individual is an unattainable status. There is no one in this world who can honestly claim to have achieved perfection. The world becomes a Pacman all or nothing game- either one hits every single point, or they lose the game. Either one fulfills Hashem’s instructions exactly, or all is forfeited. Missteps are thus disastrous and unsustainable losses. This embodies an attitude of intolerance for imperfection, rather than a striving for improvement. It would also indicate that the precondition to self-worth and connection to G-d is perfection.

This represents an identical paradigm to the fixed-mindset predicament. A person must convince themselves that come what may, they are perfect. Any doubt of this is removed through building an emotional wall to blind oneself from detecting any room for growth, as that would entail confronting a previous flaw. In reference to this condition, Rabbi YY Jacobson states “some people amputate a part of themselves in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.”(3) In a particularly stirring discussion at a Farbrengen on Yud Tes Kislev, he depicts this struggle. “How do you deal with the darkness inside of you? Very often, a person’s inspiration in yiddishkeit comes from ignoring or denying their darkness.”(4) An individual would demand of themselves to be born and forever remain a tzaddik.

A strikingly similar paradigm is observed in Dweck’s research. Those who maintain a fixed mindset tend to abstain from challenging tasks, regard effort as a sign of weakness, demonstrate intolerance for constructive criticism, and have lower rates of perseverance.(5) As such, the spiritual struggle is condemned as an omen of imperfection. One is forced to view themselves as either evil, their actions meaningless, or as wholesome and incapable of making mistakes. Given the pressing issues a fixed mindset creates, I will now delve into the authentic Torah view on perfection and failure.

Torah is growth oriented?

When does connection to G-d occur? Is it when one is a tzaddik? Judaism deems the tzaddik incapable of standing in the arena of the Baal Teshuva (one who has repented).(6) This fact may appear strange at first glance, but be clarified with the following analogy: Life can be compared to a descending escalator; in order to ascend, remaining immobile is not an option! If we do not wage war with the natural instincts that pull us down, we are washed away with them, G-d forbid. The only option is to sprint up the steps, and arrive at a higher destination. The tzaddik may have reached the top landing, but the Baal Teshuva must exert additional effort into mastering the steps. Such exertion is a conduit for closeness with G-d that a tzaddik is incapable of achieving. As such, a pasuk in Tehillim states: “Search for Hashem and His might; seek His countenance always.”(7) This enlightens us into the Torah’s value of growth over remaining perfect, yet stationary.

An additional example of this paradigm is Moshe Rabbeinu. The Torah describes Moshe Rabbeinu as the greatest prophet to ever live.(8) It would be easy to regard Moshe as a human who was flawless from birth. Indeed, we find that the commentaries describe Moshe’s birth as miraculous. He had a special light around him when he was born,(9) and when he grew up, he went out from the palace with self-sacrifice to assist his brethren.(10) Yet, the first time G-d revealed himself to Moshe, the interaction consisted of G-d admonishing him for speaking negatively about the Jews.(11) Is this how an illustrious leader begins his career? If someone was rebuked repeatedly at a job interview, would they pursue the job? And yet, Moshe is gifted at the end of his life with the privilege of being called an Eved Hashem (servant of G-d)!(12) Perhaps, this is what the Torah is trying to teach us. The precondition to a deeper connection as an Eved Hashem is an ability to receive criticism and transform it into self-improvement.

The Spiritual Fixed Mindset Remedy

1) The soul is not bound by a set ability

How do we reconcile the two views? Is Judaism about being stationary and perfect, or is it in fact, the antithetical of the fixed mindset? Enter Chassidus into the equation, and a world is transformed before our eyes. In fact, Chassidus was originally founded as a result of this conflict. The Baal Shem Tov was witness to the terrible suffering of the masses and observed how the educated minority stood aloof before them, scorning their attempts in Avodas Hashem and thus, alienating them from the Torah. The simple Jew’s service of Hashem was discounted as fruitless labor due to their imperfection and uneducated status. The Baal Shem Tov’s mission was to counteract this grave spiritual epidemic and spread unconditional love for every Jew.(13) His successors, the Chabad Rebbes, taught that every Jew possesses a Neshama, an infinite G-dly spark endowed to them by their Creator to overcome all obstacles to their service of G-d.(14)

2) The struggle: Result of spiritual deficiency?

Tanya, also known as the Book for the Beinonim, is the guide to show every Jew that he is naturally equipped to connect to and serve G-d.(15) The entire Tanya is based on the verse “because this thing that I have commanded you is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.”(16) From the very first lines of Tanya, the Alter Rebbe presents the ultimate growth vs. fixed mindset debate. The Alter Rebbe inquires: how must a person view himself? When a person is being prepared to descend into a body, he swears to see himself like a rasha, even if all were to inform him that he is a tzaddik. The Alter Rebbe questions this ideal- how can one achieve spiritual success if they are viewing themselves as evil, imperfect? This is truly the spiritual fixed mindset dilemma: The outcome of such a belief would result in one of two spiritual disasters: 1) the individual would evolve into a depressed failure, or 2) remain indifferent to his or her spiritual status, reflecting a much deeper problem- spiritual insensitivity.(17) The Alter Rebbe then introduces the long forgotten Beinoni, the hero of the Tanya.(18)

The Beinoni is the middleman. He does not stumble spiritually, yet he is not completely removed from the spiritual ailments of the world. His evil inclination is a permanent part of his existence. He does not, however become despondent over his inability to free himself of it, nor is he indifferent and lured into its grasp. The Beinoni is to forever struggle with a force outside of his control and never fall into its trap. The difference between the Beinoni and the Tzaddik is that the Tzaddik is wholesome and perfect by the gift of G-d, he doesn’t engage in this struggle because he does not possess an evil inclination. But Hashem does not disqualify struggle and triumph; the Alter Rebbe later clarifies that when a Jew swears to view himself like a rasha, he is in fact swearing to view himself as a Beinoni.(19)

3) Focusing Inward

I believe that one of the key issues evolving into a fixed mindset is the focus on self and superiority over others, rather than the superiority of one’s current abilities over their previous ones. Chassidic thought teaches that a person should always look to those who are spiritually more advanced than him.(20) Another cause would be the belief that Judaism is solely for our wellbeing and reward. (This is a common belief outside of Chabad Chassidus. The ideas of superiority over others and reward will be further developed in the coming section) In order to mend these issues, one must learn how to truly grow within themselves.

How do we grow?

Clearly a growth mindset and spirituality go hand in hand. How can I change my mindset? At this point, I will begin to explain how to make all of the above assessments a practical transformation.

A. It’s not about me!

A factor that can sometimes inhibit growth is the prevalent and uninformed belief that Yiddishkeit is for one’s own sake. However, society’s natural drive is to produce and make radical change to the world for the sake of a cause outside of itself. The antithesis to such a reality would be the misled concept that one lives an entire lifetime for nothing but his own well-being, either physical benefit or spiritual. This leads to an assumption that Judaism is an all or nothing religion- one is either a fully observant Jew who keeps Shabbos his or her whole life, or why bother trying if it won’t bring any benefit to the person? Chabad Chassidus’s entire outlook on the purpose of the world, mankind, and Judaism provides the solution to this and thereby, the freedom necessary for growth. When we take a step back and look at G-d’s need, a dwelling place for Him in the lower realms, the reward someone acquires becomes irrelevant. Life is suddenly very productive, as every bit of growth is drawing down G-d’s presence into the world. Chassidic thought teaches that until one comes to recognize his own insignificance he cannot experience true G-dliness.(21) In a relationship, a Jew can’t experience G-dliness until he is bittul (self-nullified) and recognizes that Judaism is not for themselves, but for G-d. He descends into this world not for himself, but to perfect an aspect
of the world.(22) Through this knowledge, we can begin to feel comfortable acknowledging our past.

The prescribed solution to past failure is Teshuva (return or repentance). Teshuva serves as an honest assessment of our current and past status in order to clarify where there is need for improvement.(23)

How does one ensure that such an acknowledgement not transform into Yiush(giving up) and restrict future improvement ? You are required to view yourself as a Beinoni! Tanya explains that every Jew has the ability to be a Beinoni every moment by committing himself to choosing G-dliness over impurity. The Baal Shem Tov states that in the place where a person’s thoughts are, that’s where they truly are.(24) Every Jew has an infinite neshama and has the ability to raise themselves out of the pits of spiritual turmoil by turning their thoughts to where they want to be.

B. Identity Crisis

Often, people are categorized in a variety of ways: chassidish, modern, secular, extreme, frum, reform, irreligious. The danger of these labels is that they are given with the assessment that they define the person. Some criticize and ponder why people are complacent in their spirituality and assert “I don’t do that”. “I’m secular.” “I’m not that Chassidish.” However, the label screams that the person is who they are and will never change.(25) This is another possible impediment to being able to grow despite the knowledge of past failures. The application of a growth mindset can also improve judgment of others such as this. A letter the Rebbe wrote in regard to finding a shidduch (marriage partner), captures this concept very explicitly. “Since no person possesses all possible good qualities, it follows that the same is true regarding oneself — surely the person himself or herself is not perfect as well. However, [regardless of our own imperfections,] when it comes to looking at ourselves, we do so with a “good eye.”

“This should [also] be taken into consideration when looking upon another. [One should view the other person as well with a good eye, and] be ready to overlook and let pass [imperfect and deficient qualities]. Hopefully, with the passage of time, these imperfections — real or imagined — shall pass or straighten themselves out.”(26)

C. Avoiding Complacency

The Lubavitcher Rebbe would often bless people to go “from strength to strength” spiritually and materially.(27) Countless times, the Rebbe insisted that we may not be satisfied; we must improve beyond our present self-imposed limitations.(28)

D. Examine your past, and grow!

Question: Breaking old habits can be difficult. How do I alter my view to start looking at my past constructively?

We can learn how to transform failures from a story that occured by the Rebbe Maharash: Once, when the Rebbe was traveling, a group of Jews who did not support the Rebbe’s work met him at the train station. They requested that the Rebbe deliver words of Chassidus there. After a large crowd had gathered to hear the Rebbe, the opponents began to create chaos by pushing and wrecking the station. After they completed this work, they delivered a complaint to the police department about what the Rebbe had caused at the train station. Upon attempting to intercede, the officers approached the Rebbe who without any reaction, revealed a government given Scroll of Honor which required the police to aid him.(29) From here we learn that we must view obstacles as a stepping stone for the future, to enable one to reach higher levels than would be possible without their assistance.(30)

How is this done? Tanya explains that to overcome the evil inclination, a Jew must set aside times to consider how it has distanced him from Hashem and made him lowly and despicable. The purpose of this is to crush the impurity within him and make it fit to serve Hashem.(31)

This is the value of conducting a Cheshbon Hanefesh. A student with a fixed mindset cannot grow because they can’t tolerate or acknowledge their past mistakes, much less examine them to see where they went wrong and learn for the future.(32)

To conclude with a fitting story and parable:

A first-grade teacher(33) who was trying to teach her class to implement a growth mindset recentlyrelated a pupil’s story about how he used the mindset. He didn’t know how to swim and as many parents will inform you, it is not easy to teach a child this skill. Children are often afraid of the water. This boy said that at first, it was very difficult, though he pushed himself to keep trying to learn because he knew that if he set his mind to doing so, he would ultimately succeed. “And now I can swim and even do tricks and flips!” Occasionally in life, we may feel thrown into the water, that we are stuck, succumbing to the waves’ pressure, expectations we don’t feel qualified to meet because of our past. The pressures can be material, spiritual or psychological. We can learn from the growth mindset to change our self-talk, (34) look at ourselves and say “It may be true that I didn’t sign up for this, that I’m drowning in struggles at the moment for which I currently lack the knowledge and skills to overcome. But I know that G-d is my swimming instructor, He is placing me in the water to help me grow and learn how to overcome these challenges. I just need to be open to learn how to not only
float and survive, but to surf the waves, achieve.”

May our ability to transform the past into a stepping stone to serve G-d with a full heart lead to a perfected world, a dwelling place for Hashem in the lower realms,(35) with the imminent arrival of Moshiach.

Footnotes and Sources
1 Dweck, Carol S. Mindset. Ballantine Books, 2016. page 263
2 See Likutei Amorim, Chapter 1
3 Rabbi YY Jacobson: Never Ever Fear Your Emotions – Excerpt from the Yud Tes Kislev
Farbrengen 5779
4 Rabbi YY Jacobson: Never Ever Fear Your Emotions – Excerpt from the Yud Tes Kislev
Farbrengen 5779

5 Dweck, Carol S. Mindset. Ballantine Books, 2016. page 263
6 Rambam’s Code of Jewish Law: Laws of Teshuvah 7:4 cites Berachos 34b
7 Tehillim 105:4
8 Deuteronomy 34:10
9 See Rashi on Shemos(Exodus) 2:2
10 Shemos(Exodus) 2:11
11 See Rashi on Shemos(Exodus) 4:2
12 Bamidbar(Numbers) 12:7
13 Sensitivity The Rebbe’s compassionate attention to “the little things”:
14 Likutei Amorim, Chapter 2
15 Verse found on Likutei Amorim, cover page and expounded on further in chapter
16 Decorum(Deuteronomy) 30:14
17 Likutei Amorim, Chapter 1
18 Likutei Amorim, Chapter 13
19 Likutei Amorim, Chapter 13
20 Hayom Yom for the 24th of Cheshvan
21 Hayom Yom for the 27th of Tammuz
22 Hayom Yom for the 3rd of Elul
23 The Alter Rebbe would spend the first audience with a Chassid doing so: See Hayom Yom for
30th of Sivan.
24 Home is Where the Heart Is
25 See Seeds of Wisdom; The Keys to Change
A man asks the Rebbe advice for enduring self-improvement. The Rebbe states that “the key to
change is to firmly resolve in your heart of hearts that this behavior doesn’t reflect who you truly are.”
Kalmenson, Mendel. Seeds of Wisdom. The Printhouse. Culled from the My Encounter with the
Rebbe project. 2013.
26 Igros Kodesh, Vol. V, p. 103 as translated by Eternal Joy, chapter 1.
Wineberg, Sholom B. Eternal Joy. Sichos in English, 2000.
27 A phrase sourced in Psalms 24:8 often quoted by the Rebbe in his encounters with individuals.
See Igros Kodesh
28 See: Costa Rica:
See: Like an Engine:
for an explanation of this in the Rebbe’s words.
משיחת ש“פ האזינו תשכ“ב 29
30 Stories That the Rebbe Told Us vol. I
Groner, Levi. Stories That the Rebbe Told Us. Malchus Hakeser. 2007.
31 Likutei Amorim, Chapter 29
32 Dweck, Carol S. Mindset. Ballantine Books, 2016. page 19
33 This story was relayed to the author by the teacher, the author’s mother.
34 See Seeds of Wisdom; The Long Short Way
The Rebbe responds to a Chabad emissary who wrote him in a letter about an incident she felt she
failed in. The Rebbe responds by encouraging her by saying that this was not a failure, rather by being
in that particular situation she was pushing her limitations and growing. Eventually she will succeed.
Kalmenson, Mendel. Seeds of Wisdom. The Printhouse. Culled from the My Encounter with the
Rebbe project. 2013.
35 Likutei Amorim, Chapter 36