We all know the scene. A public official, team leader or authority figure (even, gasp, a rabbi) stands in front of a room after some kind of scandal has been revealed and utters these words (usually with a sense of practiced earnestness), “Mistakes were made … .”
While the phrase has a long history in the world of damage control, it rarely brings any satisfaction. Political analyst Bill Schneider coined it the “past exonerative tense.” William Saffire notes that it is “a passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.” Used throughout society and across the political spectrum, this phrase ought to be struck from official usage, yet it will likely never disappear.
Contrast this phrase with an element we discover in this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra. There, we are instructed how to respond when a sin is committed inadvertently. “Nefesh ki techetah vishgagah — when a person unwittingly incurs guilt.” Chapter 4 of Leviticus proceeds to differentiate the specific rituals in response to inadvertent sins committed by the High Priest, the community as a whole, leaders or ordinary individuals.
In all cases there is a common pattern. First, acknowledgement of the sin committed is crucial — whether that comes through self-awareness or through being informed by others. Following this, a particular sacrifice (chattat) is prescribed, and carrying that sacrifice out seems to be the efficient way of dealing with inadvertent sin.
Nowhere does the Torah allow us to say “mistakes were made” and wash our hands of the entire affair. Actually, the opposite is true — there can be no expiation for the sin without first taking ownership of it and then engaging in some concrete, tangible act to respond.
One of the hardest elements of Torah for modern Jews to identify with is the concept of animal sacrifice. Yet, tradition offered our ancestors a clear-cut answer to inadvertent sin — it could be made up for by an admission of guilt combined with the appropriate combination of animal and grain/ wine/incense sacrifices.
The Torah demands we be active in our process of acknowledging guilt and seeking forgiveness. The word teshuvah is an active verb — returning — going back to the correct state of being.
Each of us will commit acts of inadvertent error — where we are simply not aware that our behaviors and choices impact negatively on others, on our own selves and even our relationship with God. However, our response ought to combine both actively taking ownership of the error and attempting to address the wrong committed and its fallout through our concrete actions of repair. Simply responding “mistakes were made” is not a Jewish option.
Craig Axler is the spiritual leader at Temple Isaiah in Fulton and vice president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.