One of my favorite places to wonder in Los Angeles is the Getty Museum. Situated on a hillside overlooking the ocean and made of beautiful Jerusalem limestone, the Museum is a palace of tranquility in a frenetic city. I usually take a stroll through the gardens and up to the second floor galleries where the impressionist paintings are found. But my favorite place is just outside that room, where on the wall sits Van Gogh’s painting of Irises. Each of thirty-odd flowers is unique, with curved silhouettes, and wispy movements, shows just how much Van Gogh understood the power of movement and his true skill as an artist. Through heavy strokes and globs of paint, he was able to create a sense of delicate lightness that takes your eye through the painting but never off of it. The Irises, a masterpiece, was once considered one of the top ten most expensive paintings in the world. People come from all over the city just sit in front of that painting.
Except the artist who painted it, Van Gogh, thought himself a failure.
Van Gogh, at the age of twenty-seven was a failed art dealer, and decided to go full-time into drawing and painting. In less than ten years, he painted almost nine-hundred paintings. His subjects were peasants, landscapes and flowers. He even painted himself, it turns out, because he was too poor to pay his subjects. During his lifetime Van Gogh, only sold one painting, The Red Vinyard, for four hundred Francs, only seven months before his death. In the last letter he wrote to his brother, Theo, he said, “I try to do as well as certain painters whom I have greatly loved and admired.” Behind his words you can feel his angst. After bouts of depression and anxiety, enormous creativity, the darkness overcame him and he shot himself in one of the fields that he painted.
When I look upon the Irises again, I don’t just see the interplay of light and dark, the essence of spring captured in oil. I see the heaviness of the paint, the sense of movement, and luminosity desperately trying to shape failure into beauty. A flower is not just a flower, it is chaos shaped into resplendence, stretching upward towards daylight. Every act of creation uses the same matter from the universe and transforms the void into the potential for meaning. Every time you commit yourself to a project, whether it is to better yourself, to get clean, to start a career or to choose a partner — whatever positive act you choose for yourself, hopefully pushes back the dark. Every time you make something positive out of your life is a mirror of God’s decision to light up the world.
Every act of creation is a rebellion against chaos.
Every creative act shapes failure into beauty.
You, like God, can be a Master of Failure.
Some battles are tougher than others. It was hard for Van Gogh; he slipped back into the darkness, but you don’t have to. I’ve met so many people, religious and not, who are just like him, that just don’t feel broken but shattered. They believe that all that is inside of them is gone. I counseled many, and I’ve buried some, but for all of them, the message is the same. God does not waste a thing in the world, especially not people. The failure you might feel, the tears shed, the exhaustion, disorientation, the oppressive weight on your heart, the shame, these things don’t disqualify you from flourishing, they prepare you for it.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, we see just how God uses the brokenness of the world in order to liberate it. We find Moses standing before Pharaoh, shouting “Let my people go!” Pharaoh refuses and reject’s Moses’ demands. To make matters worse, Pharoah makes life harder for the Israelites, by requiring the slaves to continue to meet their quota of bricks, but now they must also go out to the fields to gather their own straw. Instead of liberation coming closer, it feels as though it is moving farther away, it looks like freedom is a failure.
The people then turn against Moses: “You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us” (Ex. 5: 21). Moses returns to Pharoah over and over again and is rebuffed, nine times. With every failure, we can feel the pressure increase upon him. Even though he was promised that the Israelites will go free, it appears he is doing everything in his power and nothing makes a difference. He continues, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people?” (Ex. 5: 22). Caught between a dictator and a rebellious people who seem to have lost hope in him, Moses is ready to give up. He asks of God, “If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?” (Ex. 6: 12).
Recognizing the breaking point, God responds with a command, “God says to Moses and Aaron and commanded them the people of Israel and Pharaoh to liberate the Israelites from the land of Egypt (Ex.6:13) Never before in the Torah was the movement for liberation commanded by God, to the entire people. The rabbis see in this moment, not only the commandment for the Israelites to be freed, but commandment for the freedom of all slaves. (T.Y. Rosh Hashana 17a:1) God uses the brokenness, the failure, the exhaustion as the tools for liberation. God is not just the Master of the World, but the Master of Failure.
The path to freedom leads through failure. Moments of pain, moments filled with tears, moments when you cry out, moments when you feel forgotten, those moments are not what is keeping you from the life you want to live, those moments are what are preparing you to live the life you want to live. Failure is not a state of being, it is a state of mind.
You are created to create. You are a master artist whose life is a masterpiece, but only if you also become a master of failure.