We all seek quick success. We pursue individuals whom we deem “successful.” Likewise, we run from our failures and are embarrassed to admit them.
The ever-present question is, “How can we be successful?”
Yosef is the first person referred to in the Torah as a “successful man.” But at what venture in his life does this happen? When he was the beloved son in his father’s home or when he was a viceroy in Egypt?
The answer, surprisingly, is neither. Yosef is referred to as a successful man when he was a slave by Potiphar, and then again when he was in the dark, dingy pit of an Egyptian prison.
Was this Yoseph’s success in life—to be sold by his brothers as a slave, only to be thrown into jail by the master he served faithfully?
The “Falsified” Contract
The Talmud tells us that there are several ways to validate the authenticity of a signed contract, to establish that it isn’t a forgery. One method is comparing the signatures on the contract to a previous document with the same signatories. However, this document used to authenticate the current contested contract must have been verified by a court of law after its authenticity, too, was contested. Such a contract is considered weightier than another contract (even if its authenticity was also vouched for by a court) that was never the subject of any contention.
The seventh Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, explains that a contract the people pronounce a forgery is like an individual who goes through a crisis, a letdown, a depressing fiasco. When the person overcomes the crisis, he is stronger; he can be a contract used to approve other contracts. Essentially, without that bump in the road, he would not be as strong as he has become.
As such, the Rebbe offered a different definition of success.
Success is not about an individual who has no flaws, who lives a perfect life. Yosef’s life in jail was far from ideal; in fact, his spirit was broken. Success is when one goes through a crisis and, instead of falling prey to despair, stands up and declares that he/she will not be defeated.
When one burrows himself inside a hole, he has done the exact opposite. But when one utilizes that moment of despair, he comes out a stronger person, stronger than one who never experienced that challenge. That individual has developed the capacity to be stronger in yet more complex situations, for he has already overcome them.
While we may think that the bottom line is success or failure, according to the Rebbe, success is measured differently. From Yosef, known as “the successful man” while imprisoned in Egypt, we learn that effort, and all that results from effort, is the real success. For Yosef, this meant that though he was imprisoned, he still employed tremendous effort to maintain the spiritual standards of his father’s home.
A Correlating Story
One day, one of the Rebbe’s secretaries encountered a certain individual in Lubavitch World Headquarters. The secretary asked this person, who lived in a certain New Jersey city: “Do you know this and this individual from your city?” When he responded affirmatively, the secretary requested that he tell that person that the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s secretariat takes interest in how he is doing.
This individual in whom the secretary expressed interest later related this story to me. When he received the message from the Rebbe’s secretary, he told the messenger that he had no strength to travel to Brooklyn to find out what this was all about, but he asked for the secretariat’s phone number.
When he called, the secretary told him as follows: “The Rebbe heard that there is a Jewish day school in your area that is on the brink of closure due to low student registration. Since you are the administrator of another school in the area, the Rebbe requested that you work on increasing the enrollment in that endangered school.”
“But it’s not of the same religious orientation as mine,” he protested. “I do not feel that it is befitting for me to be involved with that school.”
The secretary responded that if he so wishes he could make an appointment for an audience with the Rebbe, at which point he could explain directly to the Rebbe why he feels that he shouldn’t get involved. “However, you should know that the Rebbe feels that you are the best person for the job…”
Not wishing to disregard the Rebbe’s wishes, he made an appointment. He prepared a long letter that contained eighteen reasons why he felt that he cannot take the position.
He handed the letter to the Rebbe. The Rebbe read it and asked him: “Tell me, are these eighteen explanations sufficient reason that eighteen – or more – children enrolled in the school should now lose the opportunity to have a Jewish education?
“If you accept the position, I am certain that G‑d will broaden your resources—giving you more time and capabilities.”
Leaving the Rebbe’s office, he felt like a person on a mission. He threw himself into the task of increasing the school’s enrollment. His efforts paid off, and enrollment tripled in a short time.
He wrote a very proud letter to the Rebbe, listing all his successes.
The Rebbe responded. Between his blessings and remarks, he also added in one word: “Success?”
The principal was stunned! A short while later found him once again in the Rebbe’s room for a private audience.
“What was the comment on his letter supposed to mean?” he asked the Rebbe.
The Rebbe gently asked him to define success. The Rebbe then asked him whether one can herald as a success having a few dozen children enrolled in a school—when there are so many more children who still are receiving no Jewish education.
“But I tripled the enrollment,” the individual protested, “is that not considered success?”
The Rebbe explained to him that success means exerting effort; it’s the continued struggle to do what is right.
That person walked out of the office with indeed a new perspective on success. He understood that the Rebbe appreciated very much his efforts—but didn’t want him to rest on his laurels, there was so much more to be done.
Success is a continual struggle in life.
I remind myself that prosperity is not always success, and crisis does not mean failure. Success is measured by our struggles and efforts to do what is right. Success is not measured by forecasts, polls and the situations we find ourselves in. Success is when we turn struggle into empowerment, and then that very struggle will lead to other successes, more powerful than the previous one.
Rabbi Yitzchak Menachem Weinberg, the Tolna Rabbi, leads the Tolna community in Jerusalem and is a sought after lecturer. He has also lectured extensively on the legacy of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.