08/13/2013 11:06 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2013

What Judaism Says About Success

Success is less a point than a direction. In each morning service there is a confessional because Judaism assumes that not a day passes without sin. Was there nothing you said today, or failed to say, that was wrong? There are at least two ways to understand this daily indictment: we are constantly failing, or each morning we are given a renewed opportunity to aim for the trajectory of success.

Judaism is not so foolish or unworldly as to pretend that success does not also include worldly accomplishment. To build a business, invent a product, cure a patient, win a lawsuit -- all of these and more can also be reckoned success. It does no credit to life of the spirit to pretend that things of this world are trivial. We are cautioned against sacrificing soul growth to money, but also need not disdain things of this world to climb a mountaintop and live on elderberries. Turning your back on life is not a higher way to live; it is a premature way to die.

In addition to growth of soul there is balance. The world needs prodigies, to be sure. The great musician or artist or spiritual virtuoso becomes who she is by neglecting a great deal; it is hard to imagine that training for the Olympics leaves one much time for TV marathons of Law and Order. Part of the balance of the world is the need for imbalance in certain individuals who will hone their skills and achieve beyond the normal capacity of the rest of us. But for most people, success is a balance: work, leisure, love.

This is beautifully captured by the following Talmudic passage: "Combine the study of Torah with a worldly occupation - these are the words of Rabbi Yishmael. But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says: If a man plows at plowing time and sows at sowing time and reaps at reaping time...what will become of Torah study? Rather, when Israel does the will of God, their melakhah (work) is done by others (Berakhot 35b)." In other words, one argues for balance and the other for constant study. The Talmud then goes on to say, in classically understated fashion, "Abaye said: 'Many followed Rabbi Yishmael and succeeded, many followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and did not succeed.' " Neglecting the world works in the study hall. Walk outside and life demands varied activities and engagement.

Each day offers opportunities for overcoming. If you are kind despite the collapse of your business, that is a success. If you apologize for hurting someone, that is a success. If you rise from your prayer a different person than the one who began praying, that too is a success. The accumulation of small moments of connection, goodness, wisdom and love are together a triumph, no matter the external measures that may at times derail or dismay us.

A soul is not only given; it is shaped. When Moses asks God "who am I to go to Pharaoh?" God does not answer him. Moses must discover and fashion himself (ex. 3:11). Perhaps the best definition of success is whether you have made of your soul something that does credit to its Maker. If we return ourselves to God bruised but burnished, wiser from all our mistakes and deeper from our struggles, we are successes. In Psalm 147 God is called "The Healer of Shattered Hearts" so if we live with hearts unbroken, we have failed. Risk; hurt; grow: succeed.