How does Judaism define success?

In Jewish tradition, success is not the avoidance of failure. Instead, success requires failure. To achieve greater success, one must be willing to take risks, and risk failure, to break through limits, learn and grow.

Success is the ability to persevere through repeated setbacks. Falling is not failing: it is about whether you get back up and keep moving. For these reasons, failure is a fundamental aspect of leadership and success.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: “Failure is the supreme learning experience, and the best people, the true heroes, are those most willing to fail… Even more than the strength to win, we need the courage to try, the willingness to fail, the readiness to learn, and the faith to persist.”

It’s not about how many times you fall…

In the video, the group discusses this verse from Mishlei (Proverbs) 24:16:

כִּ֤י שֶׁ֨בַע ׀ יִפּ֣וֹל צַדִּ֣יק וָקָ֑ם וּ֝רְשָׁעִ֗ים יִכָּשְׁל֥וּ בְרָעָֽה׃

Seven times the righteous person falls and gets up, while the wicked are tripped by one misfortune.

Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner commented on this verse (Pachad Yitzchok, Iggerot U’Ketavim, no. 128):

“The wisest of all men [King Solomon] said [Mishlei 24:16] ‘The tzaddik [righteous person] will fall seven times and will rise.’ The unlearned think that this means, ‘Even though a tzaddik falls seven times, he will rise.’ The wise know well that the meaning is: Because a tzaddik falls seven times, he will rise.’”

Similarly, in his work Pri Tzadik (Nitzavim 1:1), Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin wrote,

אבל ישראל נופלין ועומדין וכן הוא אומר אל תשמחי אויבתי לי כי נפלתי קמתי והוא שע”י הנפילה זה עצמו יהי’ סיבה לקימה ע”ד לשון חז”ל (מכות ז’:) ירידה שהוא צורך עלי’ שע”י הירידה יכול להיות העלי’ יותר וכן הוא אומר כי שבע יפול צדיק וקם שע”י הנפילה דייקא יהיה הקימה

“But Israel falls and stands as it says, ‘Do not rejoice over me, Oh my enemy! Though I have fallen, I rise again’ (Micah 7:8). It is that through the act of falling, this is the reason that one rises. This is the language of the rabbis, ‘Downward motion that is for the sake of upward motion’ (Makkot 7b). That through the descent one can reach an even greater ascent. Likewise it says, ‘Seven times the righteous person falls and gets up.’ That specifically through falling, he is able to get up.”

How failure makes us stronger

Jewish tradition teaches that there is no such thing as a “perfect” person, and that through our failures and sins we have the opportunity to become wiser and better. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “However great an individual may be in virtue of his or her natural character, greater still is one who is capable of growth and change.”

In the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance) 7:4, Rambam expresses the same idea:

ולא עוד אלא ששכרו הרבה שהרי טעם טעם החטא ופירש ממנו וכבש יצרו אמרו חכמים מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין אין צדיקים גמורין יכולין לעמוד בו כלומר מעלתן גדולה ממעלת אלו שלא חטאו מעולם מפני שהן כובשים יצרם יותר מהם

The reward [of a penitent person] is great; for, after having partaken of the taste of sin, he separated himself therefrom and conquered his passion. The sages said: “The place where penitents stand, the completely righteous do not stand,” as if saying, “Their degree is above the degree of those who ever did not sin, because it is more difficult for them to subdue their passion than for the others.”

In the book “On Repentance,” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik elaborated on why a person who sinned and failed in the past but repented is greater than someone who never sinned:

“Hatred is more emotional and fiercer than love; the destructive forces are more powerful than the constructive forces. The completely righteous person, who has never tasted sin, is not swayed by hatred and jealousy; he excels in love, charity, and mercy… In contrast with him, the man who has sinned but repented can conjure up the dynamic energy of the destructive forces which once prevailed in his soul and can channel it into his newly-adopted ways. The future takes from the energy developed by the sinner and refashions it into a gigantic force of good. The same passion exhibited by the sinner in his thirst for iniquity can now be displayed in the fulfillment of mitzvot. The same appetite and commitment previously invested in theft and illegal earning can now be funneled into acts of charity and mercy.

Commencement speeches

Some of the most memorable commencement speeches have focused on the positive aspects of failure. Here are three that we like:

Denzel Washington, “Fall forward” (University of Pennsylvania, 2011)

J.K. Rowling, “The fringe benefits of failure” (Harvard University, 2008)

Conan O’Brien on failure and self-reinvention (Dartmouth College, 2011)

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