In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemini, Moses, or Moshe Rabbeinu, misconstrues an instruction given to him by the Almighty, and so he becomes upset at Aharon, the High Priest, because Aharon had burned one of the sacrifices instead of eating it. Aharon apprises him of his error: Moshe has misinterpreted the Law in this instance. And Moshe — here is the really important part — admits to his error. He does not attempt to defend his position. He does not claim to have heard otherwise from Hashem. He simply admits, in a simple and straightforward manner, that he has erred.
Moses takes quite a gamble here. After all, if even the greatest of the prophets can err, then who can guarantee that all the other things he taught us are accurate and authentic? Wouldn’t it have been worthwhile, just this one time, to fudge things just a bit and to claim he had been misunderstood and he had meant to take Aharon’s position all along? Wouldn’t that be justified, given the high stakes at hand and the importance of maintaining Moshe’s credibility with the people?
The answer is that Moshe’s admitting his mistake here is in itself an integral Torah teaching with a lesson for us all. The people, upon seeing Moshe admit his mistake, saw clearly that Moshe’s teachings were not a product of his personal viewpoint or perspective; they did not derive from any personal self-interest. Everyone saw how Moshe was fully objective, listening carefully to God and telling His message. And he was prepared to concede that he’d made a mistake and God had actually said something different.
Oftentimes when we make a mistake, we feel we need to defend the wrong position we’ve adopted in order to save face. But we end up digging ourselves into an even deeper hole, and we make even more mistakes trying to cover up our original error. In contrast, when we concede that we’ve erred, this increases our credibility and causes others to trust us to be objective and truthful.
The Talmud teaches that Rava, one of the greatest of the Sages, once lectured in public and ruled in a manner which was contrary to the accepted tradition. When apprised of his error, Rava immediately ascended the podium once again and announced in ringing tones: “The ruling that I taught you earlier was a mistake. But now that I’ve erred and struggled with the matter and figured out my mistake, my understanding of the matter is clearer — because one only comes to a full understanding of Torah after one has made the mistakes and gone through the struggle and sorted out the confusion.”
Rava’s disciples may have had to spend some extra time that day studying the lecture. But look at the lesson they learned: a lesson in intellectual honesty, and in the character and the courage demanded of every student of the Torah. That lesson, too, is a part of the Torah. PJC
Rabbi Levi Langer is the dean of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.