Parasha VaYikra

Making Mistakes Our parasha for this week, Vayikra, deals with the types of sacrifices that may be brought to the Tabernacle.  The first three sacrifices are the olah offering, the meal offering and the peace offering. These are voluntary offerings, brought by an individual who wants to elevate themselves spiritually.  The next offering discussed is called the Chatat, or Sin Offering. This sacrifice is not a voluntary sacrifice. Rather, it is to be brought by someone who has made an unintentional mistake, and needs to atone for it.  Now, some people would like to skip these chapters of Leviticus entirely, feeling that they have little relevance to life today.  In fact, one of my colleagues once had a pulpit in a congregation where they read the Two Books of Moses – they would begin in Genesis and read through the Book of Exodus in one year, and then return to Genesis again!  But, I think we can learn a great deal by reading and studying the Book of Leviticus. One thing we learn from this chapter about sacrifices for unintentional mistakes is that in the Biblical view, everyone has the potential to make a mistake.  The section starts out describing the sacrifice a priest must make for an unintentional mistake.  It then describes the ritual for an entire community that makes a mistake. Then, it goes on to describe the ritual should a chieftain should make a mistake.  Finally, it describes what sacrifice a common person should bring if they unwittingly make a mistake.  No matter if one is a holy religious figure, a political figure, or a member of the general populace, the Torah reminds us that anyone, even an entire community, is capable of making a mistake. Just as important is the fact that mistakes can be forgiven. Honest mistakes are a part of life. I read about an experiment recently that demonstrated how averse to making mistakes we are. A psychologist divided a class of fifth graders into two groups, and gave them a test.  One group was told they did really well on the test, and were praised for being “very smart”.  The other group was told they did poorly on a test, but were told they “tried really hard.”  Next, they were given a choice of two tasks. One task was very simple to accomplish, and the other much more difficult.  Which group of the two, do you think, tended to choose the more difficult task – the one that was told they did well and was praised for being “very smart” or the one that was told they did poorly but “tried really hard”? Ninety percent of the children who were told they “tried really hard” chose the more difficult task, but only half of the children praised for being “very smart” chose the more difficult task.  The authors hypothesized that children in the “very smart” group were less willing to risk their reputation by failing in the more difficult task.  They played it safe because they did not want to make mistakes, which perhaps could have impacted their self esteem, or, how they thought they looked in the eyes of the experimenter.  They did not want to disappoint themselves, or the people who were important to them. In trying to avoid mistakes, they stayed away from the riskier, more challenging but perhaps more rewarding venture.  This experiment helped me understand two of my best friends in high school. One was labeled “a genius” when he was in the sixth grade, based on his high IQ scores. We all knew he was “a genius” because his mother bragged about it to everyone. Another was a friend who was in our group, but never was in advanced classes.  He made the honor roll on occasion, and missed it other times.  We all knew he was persistent and a hard worker, but far from a star student.  My “genius” friend had high SAT scores and got into an elite university. My other friend had average SAT scores and went to a state college.  My genius friend dropped out of college because it wasn’t challenging enough for him, he said. He has worked in the same low level job for the past 30 years, still hoping to write the Great American Novel that will make his name. Perhaps he will, who knows!  My other friend went to law school and occupies a corner office at a prestigious law firm in New York City. I suspect that my “genius” friend found college quite challenging and could not tolerate the idea that he was making mistakes in exams and papers for the first time in his life.  He had always gotten perfect scores without trying very hard at all.  My other friend made mistakes all of the time, but was able to learn from them and progress in his life.  He learned that if one was not very good at something, one could get better.  He knew that making mistakes was not the end of the world.  People didn’t expect him to light the world on fire, and that gave him a certain amount of freedom to try and fail and try again. The Russian composer Igor Stravinsky once said, “I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge.”  We need not fear making mistakes – as long, that is, as we can recognize them, atone for them, and don’t keep making the same mistake over and over. Too many people refuse to recognize that they have made a mistake, and, out of stubborn pride, compound their mistake and make it worse. As the Torah teaches us by giving so many verses over to the subject of atonement for unwitting mistakes, mistakes are an ever-present part of our lives.  Without taking the risk to make a mistake, we would all stay in the exact same place in our lives, never venturing beyond our comfort level, never moving beyond what we had already mastered, never innovating, always being stuck in what we know works.  Every mistake has a blessing hidden inside of it. The question is – can we recognize the mistake, and seize the blessing? Shabbat Shalom            

Rabbi Marc D. Rudolph
Congregation Beth Shalom
Naperville, Illinois