But Moshe said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the children of Israel out of Egypt?" (Shemot 3:11)
Throughout history, some of the greatest people often failed time after time before they really made it to the top. Others thought that they had failed but realized at a later stage in life that what they believed to be a failure was in fact a grand success. Still others never succeeded – in the conventional sense of the word – but served as models of extraordinary accomplishments, sometimes without ever being aware of it.
When we carefully study the life of Moshe Rabbenu, we are confronted with a series of failures. Until he was in his 80s, he spent most of his time on the run without getting anywhere. Following a short period of tranquility at Pharaoh's palace, Moshe had to run for his life after having killed an Egyptian. (1) He spent many years in different countries, often hiding from the soldiers of the Egyptian regime, never enjoying a quiet moment.
Life is over
He continuously failed to make any impression on his surroundings. There is little doubt that by the time he reached the age of 80, just before God called to him, he must have thought that his life was over and for the most part wasted. He had accomplished nothing. He was still the same shepherd, trying to obtain some meager food, running around in circles.
And even after God called to him from the burning bush, in his 80th year (2), and then sent him to liberate his people from bondage to Pharaoh, his failures seem to outdo his successes by far. His first encounter with Pharaoh was a complete defeat. Instead of getting Pharaoh to agree to let the Jews have their freedom, Moshe's presence and request caused Pharaoh to harden his heart, and consequently his fellow Jews were doomed to work even harder. (3)
After each plague brought upon the Egyptians, Moshe was convinced that he achieved his goal and now he would be able to leave with the Jews. But he soon discovered that Pharaoh had once more changed his mind and again Moshe's high hopes were crushed.
In the desert, he is confronted by one rebellion after another. The Jews blame him for all sorts of wrongs and even demand to return to Egypt. (4) After the debacle of the golden calf, God tells him that He will destroy the Israelites. (5) No doubt Moshe must have felt that he had completely failed to educate his people to avert such a terrible transgression.
The great fiasco
Still later, after he sends 12 "spies" to survey the Land of Canaan, he is told that he will have to walk around in circles and spend another 39 years in the desert! (6) On another occasion, his opponent Korach wants to undermine his authority, and Moshe is nearly murdered by his own people. (7) And then there is the big fiasco when Moshe ignores the exact instruction of God, and instead of speaking to the rock in order to produce water, he strikes it and consequently hears that he will never be allowed to enter the Land of Israel. (8)
This devastating news must have been the final blow to all of his expectations. Now that he was not allowed to fulfill his greatest dream, of living in the Land of Israel, he must have felt that "it was all over" and that all his good intentions and deeds were of little value.
It probably never entered his mind that he would be seen as the greatest Jew of all time, that his name would be immortalized in Scripture and on the lips of millions and millions of people for thousands of years. Indeed, he may never have known what an eminent man he really was, and that there would never be a person who could even come close to his accomplishments.
What was Moshe's secret, what enabled him to continue to fight for his goals, in spite of everything, and succeed where so many others would have failed?
Knowing how to lose
The answer is simple: he knew how to lose. He knew that his failures were in fact the building blocks for his future successes. While he may never have known what his accomplishments were, he continued to fight and ultimately prevailed.
According to a Yiddish proverb, one that lies upon the ground cannot fall. Many people who are the most critical of those who have failed, do not realize that they themselves have never left the ground. Those who never fail, never accomplish, since defeat is the necessary step to success. The famous American philosopher Paul Tillich once remarked: "The awareness of the ambiguity of one's highest achievements, as well as one's deepest failures, is a definite symptom of maturity." (9)
Above all else, one has to ask oneself what real success is all about.
Let us give an example from the world of fitness. A fitness center consists of a large hall filled with many pieces of equipment that could take us on long journeys. But they do not.
There are bicycles that go nowhere, no matter how hard we peddle. There are rowboats but no water, skis without snow, and even climbing frames on which you can climb for hours without getting any higher. Still, you will find lots of people throughout most of the day working hard in the fitness center, fully aware that they are getting nowhere. It is all a failure.
This, however, does not sadden them. In fact, many return the next week and try again. The reason is obvious. Success with such equipment is not measured by how far you get but how much you gain in making your body healthier from within. Externally, it seems that there is no success whatsoever, but internally, the human being is growing steadily. The superficial viewer may draw the conclusion that the cyclist, the mountain climber and the rower are all failures. The wise man smiles and knows that they are great winners.
And so it was with Moshe Rabbenu. Every failure was a building block to his success. He was bicycling, rowing, and climbing mountains, yet getting nowhere. But inwardly he knew he was getting stronger and stronger. He never gave up and finally became the greatest man on earth.
(1) Shemot 2:11-15.
(2) See Shemot chapter 3.
(3) See Shemot chapter 5.
(4) Shemot 14:11-12
(5) Ibid. 32:10.
(6) Bamidbar 14:26-35.
(7) See Bamidbar chapter 16.
(8) Bamidbar 20:7-13.
(9) Quoted in Russ Volckmann, Phoenix Rising: Embracing and Transcending Failure (Bloomington, IN: Russ Volckmann, 2002), 168.