by Margie Klein
Admitting Our Mistakes
I want to share a teaching I read from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England, which I spoke about this past Shabbat. Rabbi Sacks publishes the sermons he has given every week for the past several years under a series called “Covenant and Conversation.” You can find it online at www.rabbisacks.org — highly recommend them!
Around the year 2000, Rabbi Sacks was visited by Philip Lader, who was then the US Ambassador to England. Ambassador Lader reported to Rabbi Sacks a practice that he and his wife have been doing since 1981. As Lader was rapidly advancing in his career, he and his wife started inviting their similarly successful friends to regular study retreats to share ideas, build relationships, and think through challenges.
According to Ambassador Lader, the most interesting thing all these A-list people learned from one another was how hard it was for all of them to admit their mistakes. Realizing that this was an important skill, the Laders instituted a practice at each retreat of having some titan of industry or politics give a talk called, “My Biggest Blooper,” where the speaker would discuss something he or she did but was ashamed to admit.
I’m not suggesting that at Sha’arai Shalom replace my sermons with a round-robin of “My Biggest Blooper” talks — but I do think Rabbi Sacks is right that it’s very hard for us to openly and publicly admit our mistakes — and often, the bigger the mistake, the harder it is to talk about.
This process of coming to terms with our mistakes, misjudgments, regrets — with our sins — is the essence of Yom Kippur in Judaism. Not coincidentally, Yom Kippur is the subject of Chapter 16 of Leviticus, the opening piece of this past week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot.
As described in the Torah, in ancient times, the High Priest would make atonement for the sins of the people by entering the Holy of Holies, meticulously performing a sacrifice and then transferring the sins of the people to a scapegoat that was released into the wilderness. I am not sure if any of that ancient practice would resonate with us today. But, in any case, now that we don’t have a Temple or Tabernacle, the rabbis teach that it is up to us, both individually and collectively, to confess our wrongdoings and pray for forgiveness.
For the Ambassador Lader and his wife, the “Blooper sessions” were a way to create an environment where people felt safer to confront and admit their errors. For Rabbi Sacks, one of the central elements of Yom Kippur is that we confess to our sins collectively – “Al chet shechatanu lefanacha – for the sins that WE have done before you.”
Rabbi Sacks argues that this practice has created a culture within Judaism where it is more acceptable to say, “I made a mistake.” Yom Kippur teaches us every year that we can and should admit our mistakes — not just on Yom Kippur, but all year round. And yet, most of the time, people do not admit their mistakes.
My husband Jeremy and I have a joke that when one of us points out something that the other has neglected to do, the guilty party says, “Well, I blame my mother, and society.”
Then we apologize (at least usually). We are kidding, but our joke gets at how hard it is, even in a rabbi’s house, to admit that you’re wrong. As Sacks asks, how much more common is it to rationalize, justify, deny, or blame others?
Importantly, our inability to admit our errors often exacerbates dangerous situations and impedes our ability to take corrective action. For instance, doctors make deadly mistakes because they don’t want to admit they were wrong and reverse a course of treatment. According to a report on NBC News this past Wednesday, preventable medical error leads to 200,000 to 400,000 deaths annually in the U.S. We don’t know how many of these deaths were related to doctors being too proud or scared or pigheaded to confront their errors, but it’s not unreasonable to estimate that the number is in the hundreds or even thousands.
Similarly, bankers and economists also find it hard to admit their mistakes. Despite all the signs, and despite that experts like Warren Buffett warned as early as 2002 that the financial industries unsustainable practices would lead to a crash, virtually all of Wall Street made choices that continually put the market at risk. Reaping enormous profits from trading hard-to-understand financial instruments that were linked to the unstable housing market — instruments even they didn’t fully grasp — the world’s largest financial institutions jeopardized and nearly succeeded in bringing down the entire world economy. The result was an economic debacle from which the poor and middle class still haven’t fully recovered.
And yet many of these same people still proclaim themselves “financial experts,” still preach their advice — often the same advice as before, as if the financial crisis never happened. And they have never admitted that they were wrong. Over and over, they just say things like, “It was unavoidable given what we knew at the time.”
But maybe it was avoidable. And, if they would have the courage to understand how they could prevent a similar disaster from happening again
In my own family, my father worked for 30 years as a tax lawyer for Deutsche Bank, one of the culprits behind the 2008 financial crisis. He retired in 2014. My dad is one of the kindest and most ethical people I know, and his department was mostly uninvolved in the mortgage crisis. But even he, immersed in the culture of the bank and its rationalizing of what happened, was loathe to admit that the bank had done anything wrong — until this past year, when he watched The Big Short, a movie about the financial crisis.
Upon coming home from the movie, my dad said to me, “Honey, you know how I kept saying we didn’t know what we were doing? Well, watching that movie is making me realize that while some people didn’t know, a lot of people did know and buried their heads in the sand because they knew there was money to be made before everything fell apart.” He added, “I am really glad that my new job is taking care of Uriel.”
My Dad had almost nothing to do with the financial crash — but still it was hard for him to admit that his company had done something seriously wrong. So, how hard must it be for us to admit when we do something wrong that we know caused harm to someone else.
Rabbi Sacks points out three gifts that Judaism gives us to help us admit our mistakes.
First, Jewish tradition makes a clear distinction between the sinner and the sin. Surely, almost everyone will break many of the 613 commandments. Still, we believe that we are inherently good. We sin not because we’re evil, but because we have taken a wrong path; we can condemn the path without condemning the traveler. Judaism teaches that no matter what we do, somewhere deep inside of us, we are still good, and capable of good.
Second, Yom Kippur itself creates a culture throughout the year where we are less ashamed to acknowledge our wrongs, because we know that one of our most fundamental beliefs as Jews is that change is always possible.
And finally, at the root of the first two our tradition teaches that God is a forgiving God. We learn that God doesn’t ask us to be perfect, or expect that we’ll never sin. Rather, God asks that we acknowledge our mistakes, apologize, and work to be better. In return, God is ready to forgive us. A midrash, or ancient Jewish legend, beautifully illustrates this point.
A king’s son had travelled a hundred-day’s journey from his father. His friends advised him, “Return to your father.”
He said to them, “I cannot. The way is too far.”
His father sent to him and said, “Go as far as you are able and I shall come the rest of the way to you.”
Thus the Holy One, blessed be God, said to Israel, as it is written in the Book of Malachi, 3:6. “Shuvu alai, v’ashuva aleichem. Return unto Me, and I will return unto you.”
In other words, if we are willing to try and change to return to the righteousness at our core God will meet us halfway
May we all be blessed to know that at our core, we are deeply good. May we be blessed to find forgiveness from God, each other, and ourselves. And may we come to have the courage to admit our wrongs, and in doing so, move past them.