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. People who make no mistakes usually accomplish nothing. And only those who spend their time in self-absorption and vanity are faultless. There is no road in between, and there is no escape. Owning up to our errors is greater than merely knowing how to avoid making them. It is wisdom gained.
In the book of Bereishit, we read about a powerful example of having the courage to admit a mistake. When the sons of Yaakov met their brother Yosef, the second in command of Egypt, they finally realized that they had badly erred in the way they had dealt with him 22 years earlier, when they had sold him to foreigners.
After Yosef treated them harshly and put them in jail, they recalled their behavior toward him and how they had sold him all those years ago:
"And they said to each other: ‘We are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the suffering of his soul when he pleaded to us, and we would not hear; therefore this suffering has befallen us" (1).
When carefully examining this case, we realize the enormous courage and strength that the brothers displayed at this crucial moment in their lives.
Rashi informs us (2) that the brothers drank no wine from the day they sold Yosef until they saw him in Egypt. This seems to imply that during all those years their joy was diminished (as in a state of mourning), perhaps because they were continually deliberating and re-evaluating their earlier decision to sell Yosef. Not a day passed that they did not ask themselves if they had acted correctly, and for years they had presumably come to the conclusion that justice was on their side.
Only after more than 20 years did they have second thoughts, realizing that they had been wrong for all that time! This must have been a devastating and traumatic experience; one that few of us could endure. Who is able to declare that he has lived for so many years in error and now has the courage to change his mind?
Owning up to a mistake that was made through an impulsive decision is difficult enough, but admitting a wrongdoing that was thought about for years and was seen as absolutely justified is a completely different ballgame.
Often, we make the terrible mistake of entrenching ourselves in our errors instead of admitting them. Consequently, we are no longer capable of taking 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 anew.
Our main problem is thinking that admitting our mistakes weakens our stand in the community. We believe that we lose the respect of our fellow human beings and 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, Yosef responded harshly, calling them spies and showing them little respect. Once they showed regret and openly admitted their mistake, he realized their astonishing greatness and behaved toward them with much compassion.
Looking into another story that deals with a similar issue, we see how Yitzchak “trembled violently” (3) after he discovered that he had mistakenly given blessings to his son Yaakov and not to his first-born, Esav.
Unlike what many people believe, the Sages point out that what made Yitzchak tremble was not so much his realization that he had wrongly given the blessings meant for Esav to Yaakov, but that he suddenly understood how he had for years misread Esav's constitution and temperament, thinking he was fit to receive those blessings.
It is remarkable that the realization of his mistake was seemingly more traumatic than when he was told years earlier by his father Avraham that he was to be sacrificed on Mount Moriah. Nowhere do we read that this caused him to tremble violently.
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 Tractate Shabbat:
"When Rabbi Dimi came, he said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: '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 Yose 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 that I told you were erroneous.'" (4)
He changed his mind. The importance of this admission is borne out by the fact that the Talmud took the time to record it!
This may well be the reason why even God sometimes makes a "mistake." In a famous passage in the Talmud, 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 them. He said 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 [proving that God was on his side] – others say it was four hundred cubits! 'No proof can be brought from a carob tree,' they 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 them [the walls], saying: 'When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, why do you interfere?' Hence they did not fall, in honor of Rabbi Yehoshua. Nor did they resume 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, seeing that in all matters the law is as he says!' But, Rabbi Yehoshua arose and exclaimed: 'It [the law] is not in heaven' (Devarim 30:12). What is meant by this? Rabbi Yirmiyahu said: 'It means that the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a heavenly voice, because You, God, have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, "One must incline after the majority” (Shemot 23:2).'" (5)
This remarkable story raises many questions: Why did God not agree with Rabbi Yehoshua? He had clearly stated in His own Torah that when opinions conflicted, 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 own instructions?
One way of looking at it is that God decided to give the impression that He had made a mistake when saying that Rabbi Eliezer was right and the Sages wrong! This is borne 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 smiled [with joy], saying, My sons have defeated Me; My sons have defeated Me’" (6).
Indeed, when mistakes are raised to the level of God, the ultimate Source of wisdom, and God admits His "mistakes," we can rest assured that it is nothing less than honorable to act similarly. God risked His reputation of being all-knowing. Instead of fearing a loss of prestige, He felt that admitting His mistakes only enhanced His dignity.
Even more astonishing is the observation in the Talmud that God brought a chatat (sin offering) on His own behalf to atone for His having diminished the size of the moon. (7)
Nothing more needs to be said.
(1) Bereishit 42:21.
(2) Ibid., 43:34.
(3) Bereishit 27:33.
(4) Shabbat 63b.
(5) Bava Metzia 59b.
(7) Chullin 60b; Shevuot 9a.