Nothing is more difficult than admitting a mistake, yet nothing is more human than making one.
In several places, the Torah deals with the need for and the merit of admitting one’s mistakes. After all, a life spent making mistakes is not only much more honorable, but the alternative is much worse: The man who makes no mistakes is usually the man who accomplishes nothing. Only those who spend their time in total vanity are faultless. There is no road in between, and there is no escape. To own up to one’s errors is greater than merely knowing how to avoid making them. It is wisdom that is gained.
In Bereshith, we read about a most powerful example of having the courage to admit to an error: When, after tens of years, the sons of Yaacov met their brother Joseph, the second in command of Egypt, they realized, at last, that they had badly erred in the way they had dealt with him years before, when they had sold him to foreigners.
After Joseph had dealt with them harshly and put them in jail, they recalled the way that they had comported themselves and how they had sold him many years earlier: “We are guilty about our brother, we saw the suffering of his soul when he pleaded to us, and we did not listen to him, therefore this misfortune has befallen us” (42:21).
When carefully examining this case we need to realize the enormous courage and strength that the brothers displayed at this crucial moment in their lives.
The brothers, as Rashi informs us, were for years deliberating daily and critically evaluating their earlier decision to act against Joseph and to sell him. No day passed by when they did not ask themselves if they had acted correctly, and for years they had come to the conclusion that justice was on their side. (1)
Only after more than 20 years did they have second thoughts and ultimately realize that they, after all, had been wrong for all that time!
This must have been a devastating and traumatic experience that few of us would have been able to endure. Who is the man who is able to declare that he has lived for tens of years in error and now has the courage to change his mind?
To admit a mistake which was made through an impulsive decision may be difficult enough, but to admit the wrongness of an act that was well considered and that one was able to justify in his mind for years is a completely different ballgame.
Often, we make the vital mistake of entrenching ourselves in our mistakes instead of admitting them, and, consequently, we are no longer capable of gaining a fresh look at the issues involved. The mind is, after all, a devoted captive of our desires and personal wishes. One must live the way one thinks or end up thinking the way one lives. To live is to regret so as to live afresh.
The main problem is that we believe that admitting our mistakes weakens our stand in the community. We believe that we lose the respect of our fellow men and we will be taken less seriously by those around us. However, looking more closely at our story proves different: As long as the brothers insisted on their innocence, Joseph responded harshly, calling them spies and showing them little respect.
Once they showed regret and openly admitted their mistake, he realized their greatness and behaved with them with great compassion.
Looking into another story which deals with a similar issue, we see how Yitzchak, after he had discovered that he had mistakenly given his blessings to his son Yaacov and not to his oldest son Esav, “trembled a great trembling” (Bereshith 27:33). Unlike what many people may believe, the sages make the point that it was not so much his realization that he had wrongly given the blessings meant for Esav to Yaacov which made him tremble, but that he suddenly realized that he had for years misread Esav’s constitution and temperament, thinking that he was fit to receive these blessings.
It was not a transient mistake with which Yitzchak had to deal but with the realization that he had erred for years! This made him tremble “a great trembling.” Remarkable is the fact that this mistake was seemingly more traumatic than when he was told by his father Avraham that he was to be sacrificed at Mount Moria years earlier. Nowhere do we read that this caused him “a great trembling!”
It was his anxiety upon realizing a vital mistake that caused him powerful and painful emotions. But Yitzchak did not close his eyes, he fully admitted his mistake and took the necessary steps.
Throughout the Talmud and later commentaries we see how the sages did not shy away from admitting a mistake. A famous case in point is mentioned in Shabbath 63b:
“When Rabbi Dimi came he said in the name of Rabbi Jochanan, ‘How do we know that woven material of whatever size is liable to become ritually unclean? From the Tzitz (the head plate worn by the High Priest.)!’ Said Abaye to him, ‘Was then the Tzitz woven? But it was taught: The Tzitz was a kind of golden plate, two fingers wide and it stretched around (the forehead) from ear to ear…’ And Rabbi Eliezer son of Rabbi Jose said, ‘I saw it in the city of Rome (where it was taken after the destruction of the Temple and it was indeed made of gold).’ When Rabbi Dimi went up to Nehardea he sent word, ‘The things which I told you were erroneous.'” He changed his mind. The importance of this admission is born out by the fact that the Talmud took the time to record this!
This may well be the reason why even God sometimes may seem to make a “mistake.” In a famous passage in Baba Metzia (59b), we read that the sages decided a certain law against the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer who was known to be the sharpest mind of his day and was fully supported by God:
“On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought every imaginable argument, but they (the sages) did not accept it. Said he to them: ‘If the law is as I say, let this carob tree prove it.’ Thereupon the carob tree was torn (miraculously) a hundred cubits out of its place-others say four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob tree,’ they (the sages) retorted. Again he said to them, ‘If the law is as I say, let this stream of water prove it.’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he argued, ‘If the law is as I say, let the walls of this schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But Rabbi Yehoshua rebuked (the walls) and said, ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, why should you interfere?’ They did not fall, in honor of Rabbi Yehoshua. Nor did they return to their upright position, in honor of Rabbi Eliezer, and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them, ‘If the law is as I say, let it be proved from Heaven,’ whereupon a heavenly voice cried out, ‘Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer? In all matters the law is as he says!’ But, Rabbi Yehoshua arose and exclaimed, ‘It (the law) is not in heaven’ (Devarim 24:12). What did he mean by this? Said Rabbi Yermiyahu, ‘It means that the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai, so we no longer pay any attention to Heavenly voices, because You, God, wrote long ago in the Torah at Mount Sinai, “After the majority one must incline” (Shemos 23:2). ‘”
This remarkable story raises many questions: Why did God not agree with Rabbi Yehoshua? Had He not clearly stated in His own Torah that in case of conflict of opinion one should follow the majority of the sages and no longer rely on any heavenly voice? Why did He deliberately try to confuse the sages by giving his opinion against His better knowledge?
One way of looking at it is to suggest that He decided to do so to give the impression that He had made a mistake when saying that Rabbi Eliezer was right and the sages wrong! This is born out by the continuation of the story:
“Rabbi Nathan met Eliyahu (the prophet, who is considered to be immortal) and asked him, ‘What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do at that moment (when Rabbi Yehoshua declared that he would not obey His heavenly voice)? He replied, ‘He laughed, saying, “My sons have defeated Me; My sons have defeated Me!”‘”
Indeed when mistakes are raised to the level of God, the ultimate Source of wisdom, and God admits His “mistakes,” man can be well assured that it is only honorable to act similarly. Instead of fearing a loss of prestige, he should be assured that admitting when he is wrong only enhances his dignity.
(1) For several explanations of this story, see for example the essays by Nehama Leibowitz in “Studies in Bereshith (Genesis),” World Zionist Organization, Department for Torah Education and Culture, Jerusalem, 1972.