To Err is Human


Photo: Chris Liverani

Very few people study the book of the Torah we begin this week, the Book of Leviticus, or Vayikra. I pity the poor bar or bat mitzvah student who has to summarize and find ways to relate to these portions , which deal mostly with the laws of animal sacrifice in all their bloody and gory detail. Yet over the years I have been consistently surprised by their ingenuity and creativity in finding meaning in parashas that are not particularly inviting or accessible! I know of one congregation that addressed this issue by creating the “Two Books of Moses”.  This congregation begins in Genesis and reads through the Book of Exodus in one year, skipping Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy entirely, then returning to Genesis again!     Their students never have to confront the difficulties posed by the Book of Leviticus.

Yes, I want to assure you that there is value in studying the Book of Leviticus. Of the many lessons one can glean from studying this Book is that everyone, in every strata of society, is capable of making a mistake. There is a specific sacrifice for a priest who makes a mistake; A different sacrifice for a chieftain who makes a mistake; Yet another for a common citizen who makes a mistake. There is even a sacrifice prescribed for an entire community that makes a mistake. The Book of Leviticus teaches us that honest mistakes are a part of life. Bringing a sacrifice is the way ancient Israelites were forgiven for their mistakes and could move on in their lives. 

 Recently I read about an experiment  that demonstrated how we human beings are averse to making mistakes.  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.  

 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 who were told they were “very smart” were less willing to take the risk of 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 researchers. Perhaps 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. 


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, rectify 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 missteps or slip ups and make it worse.


As the Torah teaches us in innumerable verses on the subject of atonement that mistakes are an ever-present part of our lives.  Without taking the risk to make a mistake, we would all likely stay stuck in the exact same place in our lives, avoiding venturing beyond our comfort level, scarcely ever moving beyond what we had already mastered, hardly learning new things, feeling frozen in what we know that works.  Every mistake has a blessing hidden inside of it. The question is – can we recognize the mistake, and seize the blessing?