Learning How to Lose

As kids, they told us “it’s not about winning or losing, it’s how you play the game.”

But if we’re honest, beneath that shallow veneer of politeness and false humility, everyone plays to win. “How you play the game” is a sentiment reserved only for losers. For winners, it has always been about winning.

Emotionally, when there’s no chance that we’re gonna win, we don’t want to compete. And why should we? The humiliation of losing stings. Why risk the pain and the shame?

The unspoken secret of success, however, is that it winning is far more rare than we’d like to believe. We usually only know about the winners and their wins. There are few people who publicize their failures – unless, of course, it’s part of that great story explaining how they arrived at success.

But in the deepest recesses of our hearts, we fail far more often than we’d ever want to admit. We fail at living up to our commitments, our hopes and our dreams. We fail our families, our friends and ourselves. We forget, we get distracted and we run late. We miscalculate and misstep. We give up and give in to our impulses.

None of these failures will ever make it into the grand retelling of our life story. Even the most impressively successful people lie in bed from time to time ruminating on the failures that they’d never share in a TED talk.

Most often, we try to avoid those mental places of shame, humiliation and regret. When the memories arise, we run from them, we hide from them, we distract our minds from them. But if they exist, as they universally do, then this too must be part of Avodas Hashem.

The secret of this work is revealed this week of Sefiras Ha’Omer – the week of “Hod”.

Each week of the Omer is a chance to work on a particular character trait. (As evidenced by the words next to the count if the day in every Siddur.) Some of these ideas are well understood and well developed in contemporary society. We know how to work on Chessed. We give, volunteer, think of others and judge people favorably. Gevura is also discussed quite openly. Gevura is the world of structure, discipline and self-control.

But by this fifth week of Sefiras HaOmer, we have far fewer intuitions about how to work on “Hod”. On the one hand, Hod is beauty, radiance and illumination, as the pasuk (תהילים קד) tells us: הוֹד וְהָדָר לָבָשְׁתָּ – Hashem is clothed in glory and majesty.

On the other hand, Hod is also gratitude, acquiescence, admission and confession. (As in the words for מודים and ווידוי.)

Somehow, the same word simultaneously conveys radiance and defeat; and these two worlds and words collide on Lag Ba’Omer, the fifth day of the fifth week, the day of Hod She’B’Hod.

Hod She’B’Hod is the bottom of the barrel. It’s weakness within weakness, defeat within defeat. Abject failure. This Midah is the point in which humility gives in to humiliation, where the shame and pain and blame become unbearable. It’s the place of damaged lives and broken relationships. It’s the world of irreparable loss.

So where is the beauty? Where is the greatness?

Perhaps it is best understood by a Halacha in Parshas Behar – the laws of Yovel. The Torah tells us that every fifty years, land which has been sold is returned to the its original owners. Of course, the pesukim explain, this radically alters the real estate market, and “buying” property is little more than a temporary mandate to use it until the Yovel year.

But Reb Shlomke of Zhvill explains that this Halacha is transformative for every family and for society as a whole. Yovel means that even if you failed so miserably that you were forced to sell your ancestral homestead, this does not define your legacy. Even the most egregious mistakes in life and business can and will be undone. Your grandchildren will not need to suffer your failures.

Likewise, in the Yovel year, even slaves who willingly gave up their freedom re-enter the Jewish community as free men. Even someone who cowardly chose a life certainties and securities in subservience is reinstated as a self-determining citizen.

Rav Kook writes that Yovel offers restoration, return and restitution even for a person who hasn’t done Teshuva. It’s the promise of Hashem that one day, you will return.

Yovel is the world that transcends all failure; the place where it doesn’t exist any longer. At the core of our existence, being a loser is never systemic; it is always an accident.

Yovel teaches us that there is something about us, something inside of us that not even we can destroy. And given enough time, everything around it will heal; eventually that magnificent part of who we really are will shine. Everything else is simply incidental; it’s not who we are.

This is expressed by The Rama MiPano who teaches us that every prohibition in the Torah is written ambiguously. For example, when the Torah says לא תגנוב – “Do not steal”, it could also be saying “you wont steal.” In the deepest way, both are true. You are not allowed to steal, and the part of you that is really you will never steal. “Real You” couldn’t and wouldn’t; it’s simply not possible.

Sometime, this profound truth can only be understood when we arrive at our lowest points of failure. From that vantage cam we clearly see and state “this is me, and this is my failure; and they are not the same thing.”

Lag Ba’Omer, the day of Hod She’B’Hod is the day we celebrate Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai; the one who taught and carried the tradition of the greatest secrets of the Torah. Where did he discover these secrets? In a cold, dark, lonely cave. In a world of starvation, poverty and persecution.

Indeed, in the Piyyut for Lag Ba’Omer we sing: בִּמְעָרַת צוּרִים שֶׁעָמַדְתָּ, שָׁם קָנִיתָ הוֹדְךָ וַהֲדָרֶךָ – In that rocky cave you stood, there did you acquire your “Hod” – your radiance and beauty.

Since October 7th, we have been living Lag Ba’Omer. In the places of pain and failure and loss and confusion, as we question Hashem, and try to find meaning and purpose and unity, there is a so much beauty to discover.

When the world falls apart, when nothing makes sense, when there are Jews chased and persecuted in caves once more, when friends become enemies, and we have failed ourselves and each other... Even then, Hashem is still here with us.

That’s what Rabbi Shimon discovered in that cave. For thirteen years Hashem was there with him.

May the lights of Lag BaOmer illuminate His presence for us and for all of Klal Yisrael as well.