When I first started out in 1970 as an assistant rabbi in a large Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta, I also had the title of educational director. This reflected the fact that I was in charge of the afternoon Hebrew school which catered to kids who were not enrolled in the local Jewish day school. With the arrogance of youth, I thought I would be a perfect professional and not make any mistakes. I soon realized that I was, indeed, fallible.
After disciplining a student for bad behavior, her father made an appointment with me. He told me that my educational vision was small and that I did not recognize the emotional complexity of students. His comments stung and I thought about them for some time. I went to the senior rabbi to get his take on the situation, and he smiled at me. He thought my desire for professional perfection was nice, but unrealistic.
In life, we all make mistakes, and the big question is how to respond to our failures, how do we continue to grow in spite of errors we make along the way. The key is to “fail forward” as motivational guru John Maxwell has said. Let failure be a lesson and teacher for us, not a death sentence. Darkest Hour, the inspirational story of Winston Churchill’s leadership of England during World War II, is an example of a leader who does not allow others to define either him or his cause. He is a leader who triumphs over the darkest of times.
In May 1940, German troops were at the Belgian Border intending to conquer the rest of Europe. In England, Parliament had lost faith in the current Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who appeased Hitler. Britain quickly needed a replacement who could form a coalition government at this dangerous moment in history.
The only man who could do that was Winston Churchill, a very unpopular man with many members of Parliament. In his first speech to them, he tells them of his plans to aggressively fight the enemy and to win the war no matter what the cost. His address unsettles those who want to negotiate a peace and save the lives of British soldiers.
Compounding the problem for Churchill is the fact that at that very moment, 300,000 British troops are stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, with little possibility of rescue. He weighs carefully whether to tell this bitter truth to the English people in his next radio address. Ultimately, he decides not to reveal this information, which would put more fear into the hearts of his countrymen. Instead, he sends a fleet of civilian vessels to rescue the soldiers. Amazingly, the miraculous occurs and the vast majority of them is saved.
Churchill derives his mandate to lead both from the people and from his own intuitive comprehension of the challenge facing his country. In spite of the perilous situation, the people support him. That support lifts his spirits, enabling him to effectively lead the nation even when his approach is questioned by negative opinion makers in government.
Five years later, Britain declared victory in the war, thus vindicating his leadership. A seminal Churchill quotation flashes at the end of the film: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
Churchill’s political history before he became Prime Minister is one of mixed success. He failed many times before he succeeded as Prime Minister. The pattern of experiencing many failures before succeeding is often found in Jewish history. Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, for example, examines the life of Moses, and a review of Moses’ successes and failures can give us insight into why Churchill was successful.
Cardozo observes that Moses had many failures before he reached the acme of his influence when he reached the age of 80. For instance, his first meeting with Pharaoh was a disaster. He asked Pharaoh to let his people go, but Pharaoh hardened his heart, forcing Moses’ brethren to labor even harder.
In the desert, his own people continue to complain and some even rebel against his leadership. The incident of the golden calf was the nadir of his career. After shepherding his people out of Egypt, they worship an idol and lose sight of their commitment to serve one incorporeal God. When Moses sends out spies on a reconnaissance mission to scout the Promised Land, they return with a negative report that, in effect, delays their entrance into Israel for 39 years.
Korach, his opponent, threatens to take the reigns of leadership away from Moses. Furthermore, at a critical juncture in the wilderness, Moses fails to follow God’s instructions and hits the rock instead of speaking to it to cause water to flow in the desert. Finally, he learns that he will not enter Israel, the land to which he has labored for over 40 years.
Ordinary mortals would give up under such adversity, but Moses does not. He understands that failure is part of life, and that failure can be a stepping stone to success. Until his last breath, he works towards the goal of settling his people in the Promised Land.
Rabbi Cardozo quotes a Yiddish proverb: “one that lies upon the ground cannot fall.” Cardozo explains: “Many people who are the most critical of those who 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.” Moses comprehended that the path to success involves failure, but failure does not have to be terminal. Winston Churchill understood that same message, and was able to inspire a nation in its darkest hour.