Breaking Your Fall
While speaking to a friend on the phone, she asked me, “Sarah, do you ever experience a low? I know I do, but I’m wondering if that ever happens to you. You seem so confident and put together. Do you ever feel like things are falling apart for you, or that you are in a rut?”
“Oh, you mean like last night?” I replied. “Of course, I experience lows!” (Pregnancy nausea, anyone?) “Of course, I fail! Of course, I have nights that I want to curl up with a pint of ice cream, finish it off, and then still long for more…”
We’ve all heard the concept of “Tzaddik yipol sheva pa’amim.—A righteous person falls seven times.” Everyone falls. And, of course, we know that getting back up is an essential characteristic of righteousness. But could it be that falling is what makes a person greater?
Perhaps the down is more essential than we realize. Rabbi Aryeh Suffrin, Head of School for YULA Boys, expressed in a recent panel that he wishes people would come forward and speak about their mistakes. If someone would speak truthfully about failure, then explain how they moved forward, the students would gain so much.
Niels Bohr famously stated, “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” Righteousness too requires failure.
Despite this, it is disheartening to experience a low. Rosh Hashanah comes around, and after examining last year’s resolutions, we may shudder. Externally, we seem exactly the same and may be left to wonder, Will I ever change?
Studies show that 80% of people break their New Year’s resolutions within ten days. That means the majority of us have failed by the time Yom Kippur arrives. How, then, are we meant to recoup?
One glorious afternoon, I realized the answer. I was biking with my sister and our children. We rode all the way to Venice Beach, where they have half-pipe skateboarding. Locals and tourists from around the world can watch as the skateboarders fly up and then down. I quickly realized that if you don’t go down then you can’t fly back up! Embracing the down, knowing that there will be an up, is the key to success. The down actually gives us the adrenaline and momentum to rise back up.
This explains that the down is important, but not how essential the down is for change. While playing yo-yo with my daughter one evening, the yo-yo hit her bed mid-fall. This prevented it from rising up again, for the yo-yo must reach the lowest point it can go in order to thrust itself back up.
In both the skateboarding and yo-yo analogies, our lowest point is our turning point. It needs to precede the rise. Similarly, my third child, Emmy, was playing a game she calls “Balloonie.” If you have ever attempted to keep a balloon in the air after the helium started leaking out, you might have found that it’s rather difficult to do. Initially, Emmy would declare, “I’m just gonna hold on to the string to keep it from falling!”
This worked well, until she realized that although holding on to the string prevented the balloon from dropping, it also prevented the balloon from rising. Eventually, Emmy learned to keep the balloon from touching the floor by continuously tapping it upwards. (This entertains her for quite some time on Shabbos.) Perhaps this is an illustration of the concept that the greater the tzaddik, the greater the evil inclination. A person who cannot fall cannot rise, either.
A deeper lesson, however, is revealed when examining a freshly filled helium balloon. A new balloon must immediately be held down with a weight or tied to something in order to prevent it from flying away. Although it is hard to keep a deflated balloon up, it is actually much harder to keep a newly inflated balloon down! This serves as a comparison to the neshamah.
The neshamah of a Jew is a “pintele yid,” as Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis was famous for saying. It’s difficult to keep the pintele yid down; the inner neshamah wants to rise, and can rise, if you just take off the layers that are holding that balloon down. It’s like the flame of a candle that always points upward, no matter what direction you try to hold it.
Falling happens to everyone, but it is important to remember that rising is natural, as well. This is how Hashem designed the human spirit!
One evening, while tucking my son into bed, I briefly gazed at the artwork above his dresser. It is a modern piece with a simple swipe of black paint across the canvas, similar to a Nike swoosh, or the halfpipe of a skatepark. “Hey Josh, look! That painting looks like the mouth of a smile, no?”
“Yeah, that’s true…” he responded sleepily.
We all, at some point in our lives, will experience failure. It’s part of being human. But when it feels like you have lost your inner helium, keep in mind that being down is part of the process. You can rise again by remembering that the breath of air that Hashem infuses within you never dissipates. Sometimes, you are just in the low point of a cycle, like the yo-yo or skater in the half-pipe, gaining enough momentum to sail high again. It is because of, not in spite of, the falling that we can rise anew.
 Bereshit 2:7