The April 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review, a publication targeting successful businessmen and corporate executives, focused on a somewhat unusual topic: failure. Dubbed “the failure issue,” the edition featured numerous CEOs discussing their insights into failure and making mistakes—sometimes worth billions of dollars. In one article, former Procter & Gamble CEO Alan G. Lafley discussed the company’s failure to get into the bleach business and shared this valuable nugget: “Failures aren’t the opposite of success. A lot of people think there’s success or there’s failure. Failure is . . . all about learning. It’s about learning what you can do better.”
Harvard Business Review just caught up to the Torah’s 4,000-year-old wisdom.
What does the Torah have to say about failure? Quite a bit, it seems. This issue of Jewish Action is chock full of Torah wisdom on coping with setbacks, both major and minor, and on dealing with failure and the inevitable valleys of life.
The midrash explains that before creating the world, God created and destroyed numerous worlds—some of which were more beautiful than the present one. What was the point of creating and destroying worlds? Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik explains that the midrash is coming to teach us an important lesson: there may come a time in life when your world is destroyed—when you lose a spouse or you are stricken with a dire illness, for example. You feel broken, shattered and despondent. Nevertheless, you need to rebuild. You need to pick up the pieces and start again. You need to create a new world—even if the new one is not as beautiful as the one you lost.
This, in essence, is what my paternal grandfather, Chaim Schreck, did. In 1896, at the age of nineteen, my grandfather arrived in the US after leaving Kolbuszowa, a small town in southeastern Poland. Despite his youth and immigrant status, he was remarkably successful. Within a few short years, he managed to build a thriving women’s apparel business. But the woman he was engaged to—my grandmother Chaya Lichtman—asked him to return to Poland. She couldn’t envision herself building a religious life and family in the “treifa medina.”
And so my grandfather left the thriving business and the life he had made in this country and returned to Poland. He married my grandmother and raised a large family, planning to live out all his years in his beloved hometown. But it was not meant to be. On May 6, 1919, a devastating pogrom took place in Kolbuszowa. A century ago, a raging mob, armed with knives, pitchforks and axes, charged through the streets in search of Jews. During the three long days of rioting, many Jews were murdered and maimed including my great-grandfather, Pesach Lichtman, who was thrown down a well and died.
My grandfather’s world was destroyed in the most devastating way—he and my grandmother, now middle-aged, moved to America with their eight children. An immigrant yet again, Chaim Schreck set out to rebuild.
Formidable challenges lay ahead. How were he and my grandmother going to survive financially? How were they going raise religious children in such a spiritually apathetic environment? But they persevered. My grandfather built yet another successful business and continued to live a religiously devout life—and even delivered a daily shiur at a local beis midrash. And, perhaps not surprisingly, because of his iron-clad will and unshakable emunah, all of his children remained Torah-true Jews. Ironically, in retrospect, we, his descendants, clearly see yad Hashem. Were it not for the pogrom, no doubt, my grandparents would have been murdered during the Holocaust, which took place only a few short years later.
The challenges facing my grandfather make my own personal challenges seem minor and even trivial in comparison. But for everyone, failure is part of the fabric of life—we all must cope with the inevitable ups and downs, the roller coaster of life.
Hope, resilience, perseverance. These are the qualities that have guided my ancestors and these are the qualities that have guided the Jewish people throughout our history.
Gerald M. Schreck is chairman of the Jewish Action Committee.