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Stumbling to Greatness

Imagine a baby taking her first steps as her doting parents watch. She steps forward haltingly and then stumbles to the ground. The parents seem equally delighted with the steps and the falls. No one acts surprised or worried when the baby loses her balance. Instead they cheer after every fall, and then they help her get up and attempt another step and stumble. Why don’t those young parents worry about their child’s lack of balance? Why don’t they show impatience and anger as she falls again and again?

Now imagine a four year old learning to share his toys with a toddler sibling who has just become mobile enough to interfere in his play. When he pushes his younger brother, (for what must be the dozenth time!), how do his parents react? Do they help their son regain his equilibrium with equanimity or do they feel impatient and exasperated with his immaturity? Do the parents accept these stumbles as eagerly as they did the child’s first steps?

One final thought experiment. When the young parent loses her patience and snaps at her preschool child for pushing the toddler yet again, does she view her misstep as part of her own motherhood growth process as she calmly resolves to attempt a different response next time, or does she berate herself mercilessly? Does she see her flaws as shameful evidence of her mothering incompetence? Does a young parent see their own stumbles as necessary steps on the path of maturity?

When our children work on attaining physical milestones, we intuitively understand that setbacks are part of the process of mastery and we naturally help them regain their footing in order to help them attempt the feat again with slightly greater skill than before. Yet, when we or our children stumble over character, psychological, or emotional challenges, we have a hard time accepting that those stumbles are learning opportunities to allow us to strengthen skills and do better next time. Even when our heads know this to be true, our hearts often lag behind…

King Shlomo (Solomon) wisely declares in Koheles (Ecclesiastes 7:20), “For there is not one righteous man on earth who does good and does not err”. Jewish wisdom explains this verse as a guide for accomplishment. Anyone who strives to do good, must understand that even as they achieve significant deeds, they will inevitably err as well. We can’t reach greatness without making mistakes along the way.

This insight allows us to understand Deuteronomy 30:2. After prophesying about Israel’s eventual sins and distance from God, Moshe (Moses) says, “And you will return to Hashem your God and you will listen to His voice, according to everything that I command you today, you and your children.” Ramban (Nachmonides 1194-1270) views this as an explicit command obligating us to repent our sins. Yet it isn’t voiced as a command, rather it is a descriptive narrative that we will eventually repent and return to God. If repentance is a commandment, why does Moshe frame it as a narrative that will inevitably occur?

The answer is that although we are obligated to repent our sins, we must also understand that repentance is part of the natural cycle of the world God created. He doesn’t intend for us to achieve perfection flawlessly, rather He created us as human beings who will make mistakes and can then use those mistakes as stepping stones to greater refinement.

A child who stumbles through challenging interactions with their siblings is learning vital interpersonal skills that will carry them with grace through more difficult situations later in life. A mother who loses patience with a toddler can use that moment to learn how to access far deeper wells of serenity than she ever could have without that lapse. Just as a baby falls in order to learn how to walk, our children grow through experiencing struggles and failures, and we do too.

We are witnessing today an explosion of mental health challenges including sky-rocketing levels of anxiety in children and adolescents. Perhaps one contributor is a loss of recognition for human fallibility and redemption that we all have within us. In many ways, our world today is much less forgiving of human frailty than it once was, while simultaneously we aren’t achieving the human greatness we once did. Could this be related? Could it be that our children think they’re supposed to get life right all the time? Do they think their mistakes are permanent problems instead of part of normal childhood growth? Do young parents think that of themselves?

God programmed a natural cycle into the world. Growth comes as a result of working through challenges. Repentance comes after sinning. Making mistakes is not the problem. Viewing those mistakes as definitive limitations instead of opportunities for repentance and growth is a problem. As parents, we would do well to decrease the intensity of our reactions when our children struggle and fall. Our reactions should reflect our understanding that erring is part of growth. Even more so, as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, the day we all stand in judgment before God, let’s commit to climb the ladder of greatness using the rungs of our errors.

For more insights on how to parent with this mindset, watch the following videos!


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Sep 20, 2023

So powerful! Thank you for sharing!

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