To Err is Essential
Students of Daf Yomi will reach it on the seventh day of Chanukah, “it” being a particularly trenchant mishna in Mesechta Shabbos, considering that the following day, “Zos Chanukah,” is identified in the Jewish mystical tradition as the last echo of the Days of Judgment that began with Rosh Hashana.
It’s easy to overlook this particular passage’s implication, but it’s one that is fundamental to life. On the surface, the mishna (73a) deals simply with categories of forbidden actions on Shabbos, including mocheik, or “erasing,” the sister-melacha of “writing.”
The designation of forbidden actions on the Sabbath is determined by which acts were necessary for the building and use of the mishkan, or desert-tabernacle. Where exactly was writing used? The Talmud (ibid, 103b) explains that the gilded wooden beams used for the structure – which was dismantled and rebuilt repeatedly – were inscribed with letters to indicate which beams were to be placed where. (My sukkah and I’m sure many other sukkos benefit from a similar component-designation system.)
And erasing? Well, that, Rashi on the mishna explains, derives from the need to correct errors when the wrong letters were mistakenly inscribed on beams.
Now think: the builders probably took drinks of water during the mishkan-building process; likely they coughed or sneezed; surely they handed things to one another. Yet drinking, coughing, sneezing, and handing over objects are not forbidden actions on the Sabbath. Why? Because they are not, in the end, intrinsic to the construction project. Only actions absolutely necessary for the construction are to be designated as prohibited on the Sabbath. And that means that, if removing erroneous inscriptions is the reason for the Sabbath-prohibition of “erasing,” then errors… must be… indispensable parts of the mishkan-building project.
In fact they are indispensable parts of every successful project. Duke University civil engineering professor Henry Petroski has written several books elaborating on that point, one of them entitled “To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design.” He makes the case that a successful feat of invention depends on a series of failures. Only the commission and addressing of errors, he elaborates, can propel any invention to perfection. “Failure,” Professor Petroski explains about engineering, “is what drives the field forward.”
Errors are part of the project of life itself, no less – a truth bearing heavily on the concept of teshuva.
Among the published collected letters of the late Rav Yitzchok Hutner, the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin from 1940 into the 1970s, is one he wrote to a student who had shared with the Rosh Yeshiva his despondence and depression over his personal spiritual failures.
Rabbi Hutner’s Hebrew letter digresses into English for a few words—those comprising the maxim that one can “lose battles but win wars,” It is a saying, Rav Hutner writes, that encompasses a deep truth. What makes life meaningful, the Rosh Yeshiva explains to his student, is not basking in the sunshine of one’s “good inclination” but rather engaging, repeatedly and no matter the setbacks, the battle against our inclination to sin.
Rabbi Hutner notes that Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon, (Mishlei, 24:16) teaches us that “Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up.” That, writes the Rosh Yeshiva, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to get up again.” What it really means, he explains, is that it is precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles—including the failures—are inherent to the achievement of eventual, ultimate victory. If we find ourselves flat on our backs, we must pick ourselves up and resume the war. And, if need be, again. And again.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are long behind us, hardly at the forefront of most Jews’ minds as snow clouds gather. But thoughts of righteousness, sin and repentance are not seasonal; every day of the year brings its own challenges. And so, approaching the final day of Chanuka, we do well to ponder our stumblings, but, remembering Rav Hutner’s thought, to also temper our anguish over mistakes we have made. To understand that failures, even repeated ones, are integral steps toward ultimate success.
To remember why it is that erasing writing on Shabbos is forbidden.
© 2012 Rabbi Avi Shafran
The above essay may be reproduced or republished, unedited.
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