July 23, 2024
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Admitting Our Mistakes

In this week’s parsha, the Torah describes various categories of sin, and the resulting korban brought to atone for each sin.

One scenario described is that of a nasi, a national leader, who sins and becomes aware of his transgression. Although the sin was committed by only one individual, his status as leader of the community makes the transgression a community matter—and therefore the Torah outlines a communal korban that is brought as atonement.

The commentaries note the peculiar language used to describe this event. In place of the standard “im nasi yecheta—if a nasi will sin,” the Torah says, “asher nasi yecheta—that a nasi sins.” Why the shift in language specifically here?

Sforno explains that the word “that,” as opposed to “if,” teaches us that it’s inevitable that a leader will sin. Leaders are human; being in a position of authority or influence does not make someone free of the temptations we all have. In fact, temptations are even greater for those in positions of authority—and the reality of sinning is therefore inevitable.

Rashi, however, gives a different explanation. He quotes a midrash that plays on the pasuk’s opening word, “asher—that”: “Fortunate (ashrei) is the generation whose nasi notices when he makes a mistake and makes sure to bring a korban to atone for his mistakes; how much more so, a leader who regrets the sins that he commits purposefully.”

The Midrash’s comment here is striking. The language of “fortunate is…” implies that it’s unusual for a leader to notice and/or admit his mistake. Yet as Sforno noted earlier, it’s inevitable that every communal leader will make a mistake. So why’s it so rare for such a leader to notice and admit his mistakes?

I believe the answer is based on two factors. Firstly, humans in general have trouble admitting mistakes or that they are wrong. We inherently desire to always do good and to present ourselves in a positive way. Whenever possible, we prefer to avoid noticing any of our missteps. Yet eventually we face moments when circumstances, or people around us, force us to face reality and “own up” to our mistakes. Given a nasi’s position of power, those around him will hesitate to criticize or critique their leader. He will therefore be given more leeway, and thereby be more successful at ignoring—either consciously or unconsciously—his sins and mistakes.

Additionally, people in positions of authority—particularly community leaders—have an image to uphold. Communities hold their leaders to higher standards—and said leaders feel pressure to, at least publicly, live up to those standards. Sometimes these leaders will do anything to hide any imperfection or faults that they may have.

It’s rare to find a leader who is so comfortable with himself and his leadership that he not only overcomes the natural inclination to ignore/deny mistakes but does so in a position of leadership. Such a leader recognizes that everyone makes mistakes, and that a person’s true greatness comes from his ability to learn, and grow, from his past iniquities. And as the midrash states, “fortunate” is any community who merits such a leader.

As parents, whether we realize it or not, we are in a position of authority and leadership vis a vis our children. Sometimes that reality creates expectations that our kids have for us and that we have for ourselves. When our kids are young, we parents are perfect to them, are the best at everything and can make no mistakes. As our kids grow older, they begin to realize that we are not as perfect as they thought. Yet, even then we often try to continue presenting a flawless image to our kids. Our position as an authority, combined with a desire for our children to admire us, causes us to present ourselves to our children in a particular way. We focus more on our successes and positive attributes and are less willing to admit past mistakes. Particularly if we have a disagreement with our kids we will never admit that we were wrong, even if we internally realize our mistake.

And yet when we act in this way, we are hurting ourselves and our ability to properly educate our children. Children need to grow up with a realistic picture of their parents, leaders and role models. They need to understand that all parents, and all leaders, are human, just like them—and that they make mistakes, just like them. Such an understanding makes it easier for them to relate to their role models and to learn from them. Children need to realize that their parents are doing their best, but that mistakes will happen. And that is okay. The best thing we can do as parents is model for our children how to admit mistakes and then use the situation to grow and become better.

“To err is human…” In this week’s parsha, the Torah and Midrash highlight how hard, and therefore rare, it is for a communal leader to admit his mistakes. This is true in all positions of authority—parenthood included. The more we are aware of this pitfall, the more realistic and honest we can be in how we present ourselves to our kids—and the more prepared for real life our children will be.

Shabbat shalom!


Rav Yossi Goldin is the menahel tichon at Yeshivas Pe’er HaTorah, rebbe at Midreshet Tehilla, and placement advisor/internship coordinator for the YU/RIETS Kollel. He lives with his family in Shaalvim and can be reached at [email protected].

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