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    Last week, the
    Milwaukee Bucks, who
    finished with the best
    record in the NBA regular
    season, were eliminated
    from the playoffs by the
    Miami Heat, the 8th seed
    who barely snuck in. The
    Bucks’ star player, Giannis Antetokounmpo
    was asked following the game whether he
    viewed the season as a “failure.” His
    refreshingly raw answer went instantly viral
    and was celebrated not only by secular media
    and sports fans but received a substantial
    amount of attention and promotion from frum
    Jews on social media and “Jewish influencers,”
    several of whom who labeled it “great mussar.”
    A rebbe in a yeshiva even played it for the boys
    in his shiur.
    Giannis’ full answer to the reporter:
    Do you get a promotion every year on your
    job? No, right? So, every year you work is a
    failure? Yes or no? No. Every year you work,
    you work toward something—toward a goal,
    right?— which is to get a promotion, to be able
    to take care of your family, to be able to …
    provide a house for them or take care of your
    parents. You work toward a goal. It’s not a
    failure. It’s steps to success. There’s always
    steps to it. Michael Jordan played 15 years.
    Won six championships. The other nine years
    was a failure? … Exactly, so why do you ask
    me that question. It’s the wrong question.
    There’s no failure in sports. There’s good days,
    bad days, some days you are able to be
    successful, some days you are not, some days it
    is your turn, some days it’s not your turn. That’s
    what sports is about. You don’t always win.
    Some other group is gonna win and this year
    someone else is gonna win. Simple as that.
    We’re gonna come back next year and try to be
    better, try to build good habits, try to play better
    … and hopefully we can win a championship.
    So, 50 years from 1971 to 2021 [the Bucks]
    didn’t win a championship, it was 50 years of
    failure? No it was not. There were steps to it.
    And we were able to win one and hopefully we
    can win another one.”
    While I admire and appreciate Giannis’s
    sentiment and understand the power and
    attraction to his encouragement, I believe his
    failure to label his season a failure is more than
    semantics: it is significant, even damaging.
    Failures needn’t define us. The most
    accomplished and greatest people of our sacred
    history were not perfect and not above failure.
    They became who they were because they
    learned how to fail forward, how to see the
    particular moment, event, decision or act as a
    failure while not seeing themselves as failures.
    Nevertheless, failing forward begins by
    recognizing and admitting failure. Failures are
    steps to success only if we pause to honestly
    assess them as failures, address how they
    occurred, ask what we can learn from them, and
    determine how we can avoid them happening
    again. Failures generate success when we take
    responsibility for them, hold ourselves
    accountable for them, and use them to motivate
    When we whitewash them, downplay them,

    minimize them, fail to take responsibility for
    them, we cannot fix them or avoid them.
    Minimizing and diluting failures by refusing to
    acknowledge them and instead describing them
    as part of a process, as steps on a journey,
    constitutes a failure to be honest, accurate, or
    To be clear, Giannis’s life has been anything
    but a failure. He was born in Greece to Nigerian
    immigirants, overcame incredible obstacles
    including poverty, and against all odds, got
    drafted into the NBA at a young age. He
    doesn’t only compete, he has emerged to be one
    of the best players in the NBA and someone
    described by his peers as a not only a great ball
    player, but a great person.
    The question from the reporter wasn’t, you
    were eliminated from the playoffs, is your life a
    failure. It was, you have been eliminated from
    the playoffs, would you call this season a
    failure. His comments are understandable taken
    in the greater context of his remarkable life
    story, but they are still wrong regarding the
    specific question about the season.
    The Bucks had the best record in the NBA this
    season. When the playoffs started they were
    given the best odds to win the championship,
    and they were overwhelming favorites to beat
    the Heat. The city, owners and fans expected
    the team to do much more than have fun, do
    their best, and just win one game in the playoffs.
    The players, coaches and management were
    paid to win, to take home a championship,
    certainly to get past the first round. Anything
    short of these goals was, objectively, a failure.
    Identifying something as a failure doesn’t
    mean beating ourselves up, being debilitated by
    guilt or shame, or staying stuck in the past. It
    means being honest with ourselves, taking
    ownership, and holding ourselves accountable.
    Teshuva, repentance, repair, and reproach
    begin with Viduy, an admission of what went
    wrong and a declaration of a commitment to
    improve. Rav Soloveitchik said before we can
    approach the Mizbeiach, the place of
    forgiveness and growth, we must pass the kiyor,
    look in the copper base that is made of mirrors,
    stare into our reflection, and be honest with
    We live in a time where there is growing
    intolerance for pain, discomfort, or failure.
    Giving everyone a participation trophy can’t
    and won’t inoculate them from the harsh reality
    that life will teach them one way or another that
    in competition, there are winners and there are
    those crowned champions. There will come a
    time they may not get into the yeshiva or
    seminary they want, they may not get the job
    they want or the “other side” of a shidduch may
    say no. When we give all children a literal or
    metaphorical participation trophy, when we try
    to protect and save them from feelings of
    failure, pain, disappointment, we stifle their
    growth, squash their drive, and set them up for
    unrealistic expectations of how life and the real
    world will treat them.
    The Gemara in Berachos and Bava Basra says
    “luchos v’shivrei luchos munachin ba’aron.”
    When Moshe came down from the mountain,
    saw the people worshipping the calf and
    smashed the luchos, the broken and shattered

    pieces were gathered, collected, and carefully
    placed in the Aron to sit beside the unbroken,
    complete, second set of tablets. The broken
    pieces are saved to remind us that our failures
    and mistakes are not to be discarded, eliminated,
    and forgotten from our memories. We can only
    succeed when we remember the broken
    experiences and use the lessons learned as
    springboards to success.
    A healthier and more Torah-based approach to
    the question Giannis was posed might have
    sounded something like: “Yes, given our record,
    our talent, and our potential, being eliminated
    in the first round makes this season a failure.
    We are sorry to the fans and the owners, but we
    assure you, we won’t be defined by this loss or
    elimination. Life is a journey, it is made up of
    many seasons, and while they include failures,
    we are committed more than ever to learning
    what went wrong, to working harder than ever
    to improve, and we hope and plan to come back
    and succeed in our goal of bringing this city
    another championship.”
    Giannis rhetorically asked if the nine seasons
    Michael Jordan didn’t win a championship
    were a failure. We don’t have to speculate how
    Jordan would answer. In a famous commercial
    from years ago, Jordan said the following
    monologue about his career: “I’ve missed more
    than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost
    300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted
    to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve
    failed over and over and over again in my life.
    And that is why I succeed.”
    Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner wrote a beautiful letter
    to a student who was very discouraged:
    A failing many of us suffer from is that when
    we consider the aspects of perfection of our
    sages, we focus on the ultimate level of their
    attainments, while omitting mention of the
    inner struggles that had previously raged within
    them. A listener would get the impression that
    these individuals came out of the hand of their
    Creator in full-blown form. Everyone is awed
    at the purity of speech of the Chofetz Chaim,
    z.t.l., considering it a miraculous phenomenon.
    But who knows of the battles, struggles and
    obstacles, the slumps and regressions that the
    Chofetz Chaim encountered in his war with the
    yetzer hara (evil inclination)? There are many
    such examples, to which a discerning individual
    such as yourself can certainly apply the rule.
    The English expression, ‘Lose a battle and win
    a war’ applies. Certainly you have stumbled,
    and will stumble and in many battles you will
    fall lame. I promise you, though, that after those
    losing campaigns you will emerge from the war
    with the laurels of victory upon your head. Lose
    battles but win wars.
    Several years ago, I had the privilege to
    interview Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l. I
    asked him:
    When we look at your life and productivity,
    whether the trajectory of ascending to the chief
    rabbinate, publishing 30 books, 17 honorary
    degrees, being named a Lord, etc., it just seems
    that you have had success after success, triumph
    after triumph. Have you ever experienced
    failure? Have you ever had any challenges that
    you couldn’t overcome and what gave you the
    tenacity to persevere?

    He was taken aback, even amused by my
    question, and this was his response:
    Ha! Have I ever experienced failure?! My
    goodness me! Oooh! [Laughter.] I nearly failed
    my first year in university. I nearly failed my
    second year in university. I was turned down for
    virtually every job that I applied for. Since I was
    a kid, I wanted to write a book. I started when I
    was 20 and I gave it every minute of spare time
    that I had. Even when Elaine and I went to a
    concert I would be writing notes during
    intervals or between movements during a
    symphony. Yet, I failed for 20 years! From 20 to
    40 I had a whole huge file cabinet of books I
    started and never finished.
    What changed is I happened to be reading the
    preface to “Plays Unpleasant” by George
    Bernard Shaw. It opens by saying that if you’re
    going to write a book, write it by the time
    you’re 40 or forget it. I thought it was Min
    Hashamayim. Someone is telling me something
    because I had no idea why I happened to read
    that passage by that writer at that time. I thought
    to myself that it was my last chance. So, I wrote
    my first book at 40 and then I wrote a book a
    year ever since.
    Winston Churchill put it beautifully: “Success
    is going from failure to failure without loss of
    enthusiasm.” The secret was marrying someone
    who believes in you and then to just keep going.
    Never stop! All of the things that came much
    later, most of them unexpected – very moving
    but not the ikkar – it’s just “keeping on going”
    day after day.
    That wonderful Medrash in hakdama of Ein
    Yaakov asks what is the main pasuk in the
    Torah? One [Tanna] said that it’s loving your
    fellow man, כמוך לרעך ואהבת. A second said
    ישראל שמע, it’s about accepting the yoke of
    Heaven. Then, Ben Pazzi says אחד הכבש את
    בבקר תעשה… bringing the daily sacrifice in the
    morning and in the evening. It’s about
    Shacharis, Mincha, Maariv. That’s life! You
    keep hammering away and eventually you’ll
    get there.
    The only thing that is absolutely necessary is
    that you have to key into your mental satellite
    navigation system, your destination. Because if
    you don’t know where you’re trying to get to,
    you’ll never get there. I knew I wanted to write
    a book. It took 20 years of failure until I finally
    succeeded in the twenty-first year.
    It is not a failure to acknowledge, recognize,
    and call out failure by its name. Giannis is
    objectively wrong: there are failures in sports,
    just like there are failures in life. Not all failures
    are bad, and we shouldn’t be afraid to experience
    them or to name them. On the contrary, by
    properly naming them, owning them, and
    learning from them, we can use them to propel
    ourselves to greater successes than we ever
    thought possible.