I find it difficult to admit when I am wrong. Especially in an area where I have some expertise or a reputation, if I err, it takes effort to backtrack and admit that I said / did the wrong thing. Further, we have some distrust of people who change their minds. We worry they may lack constancy or be weak. We call them flip-floppers with a sense that they hold their finger out to see which way the wind blows.
We see in the Torah numerous examples where people fail to take responsibility for their own actions with disastrous results. Whether Adam and Eve blaming each other and the snake for eating the forbidden fruit, or Cain after killing Abel, the Torah is replete with people unable to take responsibility.
Even Moses does this. At the end of his life, Moses addresses the Israelites. He tells them God has forbidden him to enter the land. The story in Numbers tells of the people complaining about a lack of water. God tells Moses to speak to a rock and water will come forth. Moses instead hits the rock. His anger causes God to forbid him from entering the Holy land.
Yet now, in Deuteronomy, Moses fails to take responsibility for his angry reaction. Instead, he blames the people, telling them it was their fault that he cannot enter Israel. I wonder: if Adam and Eve had taken responsibility, could we have stayed in the Garden? If Moses had taken responsibility, might God have let him enter Israel?
The Talmud tells a funny anecdote of a Cohen who has questionable status. Evidence keeps arriving that first causes the court to remove him as a Cohen, then restore him, and then remove him again. They ask the question: should the court hold by its first ruling? After all, by flip flopping like this, do they damage the prestige of the court? Yet despite this worry, the Talmud is clear that the truth matters more than the Court’s honor.
Both the Talmud and the Torah urge us to accept responsibility for our actions and to admit when we are wrong. My family has a practice that if someone asserts something that proves to be wrong, they have to say, “You were right and I was wrong and how could I have ever doubted you?” This slightly silly humility practice gives us a way to back down and worry more about getting the right answer than being the one who has it.
As we begin a move towards Rosh Hashanah and the renewal it promises, I invite you to begin practicing a humility that lets you admit mistakes and back down from errors. This humility is the keystone for self-transformation. Only if we admit we are wrong are we capable of changing.
The next time you make a mistake, try admitting the mistake. Perhaps use my family’s silly practice. Even more, admit to yourself where you have gone wrong. And know that by admitting a mistake, the possibility of correcting it and growing now exists.
Rabbi David Booth