To Err is Human

All of us acknowledge that to err is human.  Yet, most of us go through life assuming that we are right about almost everything – from the big things, like global warming or whether there should be a death penalty, to the little things, like how to load a dishwasher or how to make a left hand turn in Naperville.  The journalist Kathryn Schulz published a book[1] two years ago exploring why, if we acknowledge that being wrong is so natural and frequent, we find it so maddening to be mistaken ourselves. Our insistence on being right and our reluctance to admit we are wrong can corrode relationships between family members, colleagues, neighbors and even nations. We are able to recognize our past mistakes, but in the moment, even if later we will admit we were wrong, we are convinced of our rightness.  “Indeed, the whole reason it is possible to be wrong is that, while it is happening, you are oblivious to it,” she writes. When you are simply going about your business in a state you will later decide was delusional, you have no idea of it whatsoever.”  Realizing that we are wrong can elicit a variety of feelings — shock, confusion, embarrassment, and even pleasure.  But “being wrong” only elicits one kind of feeling – the same exact feeling we have when we feel we are right!  This subject has relevance for us this week, as the Torah speaks of the ordeal of the Sotah. You may remember that the ordeal was a regular form of trial in the Middle Ages in Europe.  An ordeal is a legal custom whereby an accused person was required to perform a test, the outcome of which decided the person's guilt or innocence. In the Torah, almost all matters of guilt and innocence are determined by witnesses and judges.  The ordeal of the Sotah is the only instance of an ordeal that is found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The ordeal is mandated when a jealous husband accuses his wife of committing adultery.  She appears before the priest in the Temple and drinks a mixture of bitter water, dust from the sanctuary floor, and a charcoal curse containing God's name which is dissolved into the water potion. After drinking the water, if her body begins to deteriorate, she is considered guilty of adultery by the court and the entire people of adultery.  But, as is much more likely, if nothing happens — after all, the only thing she did was to drink some dirty water — her innocence is established beyond doubt. We can understand why the Torah resorts to an ordeal in the case of a jealous husband and his wife.  Jealousy is like a sickness.  A jealous man is convinced that he is justified in his suspicions. He has lost his capacity to reason, by definition.  He is overcome by his emotions, convinced of his rightness and the wrongness of his wife’s behavior.  The only way that he can possibly be convinced that he is wrong about his wife’s behavior is if G-d himself, G-d who knows all, from whom there are no secrets, can give him a sign.  Otherwise, husband and wife are frozen in their positions – he, knowing that he is right, his wife, insisting that he is wrong.  Of course, this is a rather extreme example of a conflict between and husband and a wife. But many conflicts are like this. They start when a husband sees things one way, and the wife sees them another. They try to convince one another that they are right and the other is wrong.  Neither wants to budge. Each is convinced of their own rightness. Pride and ego get in the way. Neither wants to back down.  Each party feels aggrieved, and hurt.  And each party says, “If I back down, if I give in, I will appear to be weak. And therefore, I don’t care who started this fight. I don’t care who is right or wrong. I am not going to back down, no matter what!” The writer Richard Carlson[2] points out the utter folly of this dynamic.  “Think about it,” he writes, “Have you ever been corrected by someone and said to the person who was trying to be right ‘Thank you so much for showing me that I’m wrong and you’re right. Now I see it. Boy, you’re great.’….. Of course not. We all want our positions to be respected and understood by others. Being listened to and heard is one of the greatest desires of the human heart. And those who learn to listen are the most loved and respected…..” In our Thursday morning class we were discussing the concepts of “sin” and “being wrong”.  One of the members asked me what I thought the difference was.  I thought about that after the class, and came up with an answer.  “To sin is always wrong. But being wrong is no sin.” Being wrong is simply part of the human experience.  We should try to carry around a mantra when we get into disagreements with others, especially those we love.  That mantra would be “Maybe I’m wrong.” Rabbi Jack Riemer writes that when he is called upon to do marital counseling, he firsts asks the couple to recite a prayer with him. That prayer reads:  Dear God, May there be no winner and no loser in this dispute. For if there is a winner, there will be a loser, and if that happens, we will both lose. Instead, give us the wisdom to find a way in which to compromise, so that we may safeguard each other’s honor, so that we may protect each other’s dignity, and so that we may understand each other’s feelings.  Amen.

 [1] Kathryn Schulz, “Being Wrong, Adventures in the Margin of Error”,  HarperCollins 2010
  [2] Richard Carlson, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, And It’s All Small Stuff”  Hyperion, NY 1997 pp 33-34