Living with Failure

A few weeks after moving to the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem, a neighbor invited me to his home, and showing me his recently re-furbished dining room with its the long oak wood table, declared ‘the shabbos table is the center-piece of family education.’ Funny, I remember thinking to myself, our shabbos table is often the center-piece of family food-fighting. So if I’ve given an overly idealized impression of my family, I’m coming clean. Though I think it’s important to weave rich and positive stories for and about the family, it’s obviously not the whole picture.

In the Torah portion of from last week, those who had been excluded from the experience of Pesach come to Moses and ask: ‘why should we be diminished? we may have been ritually impure, but why shouldn’t we also get the chance to participate in the Passover ritual?’ They felt ‘diminished’ for not having had the opportunity to do a mitzvah–an amazing notion! So they ask Moses for a second chance. Though Moses is the greatest of all prophets, these laws were concealed to him. But upon relaying the question to G-d, the laws of Pesach Sheni–the ‘second Pesach’ for those who missed it the first time around–are revealed. The laws had been withheld from Moses so that, in the divine plan, those whom Rashi describes as ‘meritorious’ ask the question leading to further divine revelation. A question, as R. Yerucham from the Mir Yeshiva explains, already shows chachma or wisdom, because through it, one cultivates the possibility of a response. A good question–any teacher or parents knows this–allows for the bringing to light of something which otherwise would have remained unsaid. This sort of question is to be distinguished from those questions which are just dressed up answers; refusals to engage seriously; or ways of ending conversations before they start. But an engaged question is the means through which the concealed becomes revealed: the whole Torah, says R. Yerucham, is actually a response to Moses’s questions!

I thought this would be a great entry point to a discussion at our shabbos table. Notwithstanding a recent NY Times piece advocating the contrary, my wife and I divide our labors (confession: I don’t know how to use the washing machine!). At the shabbos table, even though my wife studies regularly, and arranges a weekly lecture (often in our house), I’m the one who usually initiates the words of Torah. With the same theatricality that I display when tasting the challos which my wife bakes, she introduces my divrei Torah. True, there was a time when both my divrei Torah and her challos (she started, years ago, with home ground organic wheat flour–which was like making motzie on compressed hockey pucks) needed work, but we’ve both become more proficient in our respective roles. I thought the ‘Questions’ topic would make a great discussion for the kids: ‘Have any of you had any questions this week?’ My son returned that a question occured to him, but he didn’t ask because his rebbe wouldn’t have known the answer (unlikely); one of my daughters said הכל מובן לי–or ‘I already understand everything!’ (extremely unlikely). One of my other daughters was already on the couch reading a book; and my youngest was still at the shabbos table, but singing a song (though not even a shabbos song). I paused, surveyed the situation, sighed, and gave up: ‘will someone pass the cholent please?’

After lunch, I was hoping my wife might offer some consolation. She reminded me that R. Yitzchock Hutner wrote in a letter to a distressed student that the verse in Psalms–‘A tzaddik falls seven times’–doesn’t mean that even though he falls many times, the true tzaddik will eventually emerge. Rather when a true tzaddik finally does come into being, it’s because he’s fallen. Acknowledging personal failure and integrating those failures allows–in the end–for a person to reveal the tzaddik within. We become great because of our challenges, not in spite of them. It’s almost as if, in the endless interplay between concealment and revelation, challenges are the questions which help us to reveal who we are. R. Hutner refers to internal battles, but sometimes, as my wife pointed out, the world doesn’t accomodate the idealism of our plans, and one has to learn to live with those kinds of failures as well. Things sometimes don’t go the way you want.

This article was originally posted here.

20 comments on “Living with Failure

  1. David, thank you for the idea of downloading questions from the Ohr Same’ach site. I tried it once and adapted it to our family’s needs. It was pretty successful, and the kids expressed willingness to try it again. My oldest found it fairly easy, and the next in line found it more challenging. Today I made up a worksheet of questions on the P’shat for my third child. If you know of any additional resources like that, I would be interested.

    Thanks again for the tip!

  2. Jacob,

    We’re in agreement. I meant that we should tell our kids they don’t have to be on their best behavior and act like little melachim, which is what they tend to do when we have guests. It’s okay for them to be “normal.”

    On the other hand, it’s nice to have guests and then we can really appreciate the kids participating enthusiastically in the Shabbos meal, Divrei Torah and zmiros. But we have to get our act together on a regular basis, and not rely on the excitement of guests to pick up the level of participation and eliminate arguments, etc.


    You might like the Ohrnet Parshah Question and Answers. I especially appreciate that they’re in English, because then the kids can’t read the answer, and if they do it’s worth it! (we also live in Israel). They can be downloaded from

    To spice it up, (you could do this with your trivia q’s as well) we bought some simple cards (1’s, 5’s, and 10’s) to keep score, and I award two points for a correct answer, which are kept in a container. When they earn 160 points (takes four weeks) the family gets pizza on Rosh Chodesh.

    The best part is that all the questions are “open book,” so they’ll actually open up a Chumash and search for the answer. The Ohrnet Q&A’s gives you the chapter and verse where the answer is, so you can tell them where to look.

    Lately I’ve been calling on each child in turn, and if someone answers out of turn they earn only one point. The older kids help the younger ones find the answer, especially if it’s a Rashi.

    One of my younger daughters learned to read Rashi script just from this “game”!

  3. Bill, yes, certainly we need to compile our own tip book, since what works for one family may well not work for another. But *I* can only think of a few ideas on my own. If lots of people — some mostly successful and others less so — share ideas, each person can take what works for their family and adapt it to their own circumstances.

    BTW, I got the trivia cards at Bazaar Strauss, in the Talpiot branch. It was some months ago, but they probably still have them. If you want them but have trouble finding them, let me know and I may be able to help. They have a separate set for each Humash of the Torah. They’re relatively hard, though; Shemot had the easiest rating of all of them, which is why I got those.

  4. David,

    Not to belabor a point

    “Maybe we should instruct our kids to act more normally when we have guests, especially baalei teshuvah, so they won’t have the wrong ideas about the reality of home life”

    But, when frum families invited me for Shabbos and kids actually did act “normal” (arguments, straying from the table, etc) I was actually relieved that a frum household needn’t be run like a military school.

    I should add that, from what I remember, it wasn’t a state of anarchy either – which might have been discomfiting.

  5. I am really interested by the responses, and found myself thinking to myself in reading some of the posts: wow I wish my shabbos table was like that! Which is of course, the totally wrong response. So though I’ve learned from many of the posts here (and will put them in my repetoire), I think every parent has to put together their own Shabbos Table Tip Books, which will work and resonate with their families (which doesn’t of course preclude Bob’s idea).

    To respond to some of the complexities of Jaded Topaz’s question. A person who stops failing–who could that be? There are always new events in one’s life, new challenges. A person who doesn’t encounter such failures is probably living on a false plane of existence (what existentialists call ‘bad faith’). A nisayon–a challenge in Hebrew–is one that elicits parts of ourselves about which we didn’t know (or only had an inkling). Hiding in the word is nes–or banner. When we succeed in meeting a challenge, we figuratively spread out the banner of ourselves. It’s not really failure, but addressing what looks like failure, that lets us discover and spread our banners. We certainly don’t seek out nisyanot, but when they come, they are opportunities for self-discovery.

  6. Actually, Bob, that is a great idea. The question is, who would compile it? It seems that most of the commenters suffer from similar problems. So we each have our own ways of dealing with it, but it would be good to compile tips from people who are more successful than we commenters seem to be. Any thoughts on how to execute this idea?

  7. yy:

    Well, I was being tongue-in-cheek, but I’m not exactly kidding. People need to see the reality and how we deal with it.

    Once, a student in Aish told me that watching a BT kiruv rabbi deal compassionately and firmly with a child’s temper tantrum at the Shabbos table made a profound influence on him. He said that’s what made him realize that Torah Judaism really “has the goods.”

  8. “Maybe we should instruct our kids to act more normally when we have guests, especially baalei teshuvah, so they won’t have the wrong ideas about the reality of home life.”

    I hope you’re kidding, David. There is a reason that we were invited to those resplendent Shabbos tables. More or less, this is how it s-h-o-u-l-d be. The problem is that noone took the time to explain that this is a fine art that not everyone gets right.

    Even more, a big chunk of that time and sensitivity they poured into refining their teach to us of Gemora,they should have put into parenting classes with a special focus on the Shabbos table

  9. Yes, this certainly hits a chord and you wrote very positively about it.

    When the kids move away to the couch and beyond, I think: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,” or something like that, and engage whoever sticks around with a little one-on-one attention. Sometimes it’s my wife, or an older daughter. Or I bring a small child to sit on my lap, because they’ll happily leave their Duplo to sit on Daddy’s lap, and look at a book or “daf kesher.”

    Another cute thing that has worked out nicely: I move my chair over to the couch where most, or all, of the kids are, and start singing zemiros. They most often join in, and we have a very lively zemiros session, which would not happen at the table (unless, of course, we have guests!).

    Which brings up the topic of the Ideal Shabbos Tableâ„¢ which we all saw in the heady days of being mekarved and never seems to work out for us the way it did for the Finklesteinengoldenbergers.

    My son once related that his Rosh Yeshivah told a story about a baal teshuvah who comes home from shul and is so frustrated with his son’s behavior during kiddush he dumps the cup of wine over his head. This BT had seen so many perfect homes, and was frustrated that his home did not have that resplendent luster. He couldn’t understand what was wrong with his family!

    Maybe we should instruct our kids to act more normally when we have guests, especially baalei teshuvah, so they won’t have the wrong ideas about the reality of home life.

  10. I would say don’t even worry if not anyone is actively participating. In some Orthodx families I know, there are some children who make their way to the couch and start reading. But don’t worry about that too much; often you”l notice they never actually stray upsatir or out of the room; they simply move a little away, but remain part of the general atmosphere. people have all kinds of reactions. it’s a gradual process.

  11. for what’s it worth — my father was a stickler in speaking at the shabbos table. come what may, flung food, spilled drinks, sibling squabbling, for a few minutes we all had to report to that table (getting off the couch or the floor) and sit while my father read to us the Mishna Brura for a few minutes. We rolled our eyes, groaned, made fun of it (for weeks, months and then YEARS, when my father would ask what Halacha we were up to, the family would chorus “it is better to jump over the brook then to go around”, though we had learned that Halacha eons before. I always wondered about my father’s perseverence in the face of familial resisting shenaningans…but now I know why he did it. Despite our best efforts to block learning, much of what he taught seeped into us. Which is why I prattle on at my shabbos table, teaching to a seemingly oblivious audience, but knowing that some day, the kids get it and remember what they heard, even in their semi-conscious state of Shabbos indolence.

  12. When failure is a direct result of free will, and if growth is a direct result of failure, this sequencing suggests that growth like pink diamonds, law careers, Hampton and East Side condos are optional life preference choices acquired through effort but not necessarily essential for survival.

    Pink diamonds and smokey topazes are pretty and wearing pink diamond and smokey topaz jewelry feels really good. A law career feels just as good as does east side or Hampton living.

    I agree that growth from failures is quite the miracle grow mix.

    My question is , the growth from failures was that growth supposed to happen? What if someone stops failing and becomes successful. No new growth anymore? What if someone hardly failed. No growth through failure for them? What if there is nothing to learn from the failures? So are the failures, sponsored in whole by the free will society for free choice, already pre-determined in order to give the individual growth spurts along the way? Growth opportunities that would otherwise not be afforded to her/him or something…..

    Are the growth opportunities provided by the failures proof that the failure was pre-programmed and would have occurred whether poor choices were made or not ? Cuz not all failures are growth opportunities.

  13. There are other strategies, such as:

    1. Have the kids (on their own level) prepare ahead of time to discuss the Jewish topics they care about.

    2. Or you can put out a question during the week to be answered at the Shabbos table.

  14. Sometimes it’s a case of “happiness is wanting what you have” rather than having what you want.

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  15. That was great — and reassuring, too, to know that our family is not alone in finding it difficult to fulfill the “ideal” Shabbat table experience. It hasn’t worked out for us as I would have hoped or expected.

    Certainly, our difficulties have forced me to become more creative in how I reach our children. I do often bring up at the table a question that came to me while listening to Parshat HaShavua. Sometimes the kids have what to contribute, and sometimes it interests only my husband (and sometimes not even that, but he tries). Sometimes he shares with us things about the Parsha that he has learned. It occurs to me that I could probably ask at least some of my children to think of a question to bring up at the table. Some would need some coaching, but hopefully they would pick up on it.

    About six months ago I picked up a set of trivia cards for the book of Shemot. For a while we played every week — it was fun to test ourselves and to learn new information. After a number of weeks, though, people had had enough.

    Another thing I’ve done is move “Shabbat table” experiences to other times. I find that Se’udah Shlishit is a less pressured time for some reason, and there is a nice family feeling. We can sometimes discuss things then. For example, during the Omer, we would have a family activity that taught about that week’s chapter of Pirkei Avot. So lessons got across that way. Also, when we have a Rosh Hodesh dinner, that is a time that the children don’t run away, since we are all engaged in a Rosh Hodesh activity, listening to a story, etc. My brother does the first part of the Seder in the living room, on the couches, and teaches Maggid to their young children through activities that engage their interest. I still don’t have the kind of Shabbat lunches I want (dinner is too late to even hope for anything very substantive), but I keep plugging away. It’s challenging!

    Thanks for writing this realistic and inspiring piece.

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