Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Bereishit - Mistakes are our friends

R' Shimon ben Pazzi pointed out a contradiction in a verse. The verse says ' And God made 2 great luminaries - lights … and immediately the verse continues  ...  the greater light and the smaller light. The moon complained to God by saying how can 2 kings wear one crown, how can the sun and the moon rule the skies together. God acknowledges the moon's objection by answering -Go then and diminish yourself. The moon complains – because I made a proper and valid point, must I make myself smaller? God then tries to appease the moon because of its grievance and says that the moon will rule also during the day- we see the moon during the day, the Jewish calendar follows the moon, and great people will compare themselves to the moon. The moon is not appeased and consoled until God says to the children of Israel – on the new moon bring atonement for me for making the moon smaller.  Only here with regard to the new moon sin offering, is it emphasized that the sin offering is a sin offering for God. – Hulin 60:b

תלמוד בבלי מסכת חולין דף ס/ב  - רבי שמעון בן פזי רמי כתיב ויעש אלהים את שני המאורות הגדולים וכתיב את המאור הגדול ואת המאור הקטן אמרה ירח לפני הקב"ה רבש"ע אפשר לשני מלכים שישתמשו בכתר אחד אמר לה לכי ומעטי את עצמך אמרה לפניו רבש"ע הואיל ואמרתי לפניך דבר הגון אמעיט את עצמי אמר לה לכי ומשול ביום ובלילה אמרה ליה ..... זיל לימנו בך ישראל ימים ושנים ........זיל ליקרו צדיקי בשמיך ......חזייה דלא קא מיתבא דעתה אמר הקב"ה הביאו כפרה עלי שמיעטתי את הירח והיינו דאמר ר"ש בן לקיש מה נשתנה שעיר של ראש חדש שנאמר בו לה' אמר הקב"ה שעיר זה יהא כפרה על שמיעטתי את 

The Talmud here is problematic because we cannot associate with God mistakes, admitting mistakes and a need for atonement.  The commentators talk about not taking this piece literally and that we are talking about a parable, where the moon is a metaphor for the people of Israel.  One commentary suggests we bring atonement before God and not for God.  Another commentary suggests that there are important lessons to be learned from this text. God is compromising Himself in order to teach us- דרך ארץ derech e'retz – the way of the world, that when a master needs to punish or discipline a servant, he should try and compensate and appease the servant. This is an important lesson even for parents who try to parent in a collaborative and ' working with ' way and find mutually satisfying solutions to problems. Sometimes we have to insist on kids doing things our way and thwart their autonomy.  We should then try to appease them and compensate for their loss of autonomy in other areas. Before the creation of man, God consulted with the angels about creating man. God did not need to consult the angels. He did so in order to teach the way of the world דרך ארץ, derech e'retz that people with power should consult with their subordinates. Maybe, here God is trying to teach us an important lesson – that making mistakes and admitting to them is part of creation, learning and the growth process. Also we see that Teshuva – the process of repentance whereby we admit mistakes and make amends, was created before the world was created. Mistakes are part of the learning process and arriving at the truth, without them there is no progress. -  אין עומדים על דברי תורה עד שנכשלים בהם   - we don't become proficient in Torah until we make mistakes.  Mistakes indicate that our actions were lacking. They can be lacking because we did something wrong or they can be lacking because they lack a certain quality, energy or engagement etc. In a sense God's actions were lacking when he created a physical universe that could not live up to spiritual ideals and He had to make the moon smaller and that its light would totally disappear at certain times of the month. In an ideal world both the sun and moon could share their crown by focusing on a unity of purpose and serving the ultimate king and ruler God. Then, there would not be a problem of idolatry – sun worship – as the sun alone did not rule the skies. When we have materialism, human fallibility and weakness, jealousy and arrogance, 2 kings cannot share one crown. The Maharal explains that what was lacking in the creation of the moon was not only its lacking in size, but the light from the moon, because of the phases of the moon would eventually disappear towards the beginning of the month. The atonement – kapparah for this lack of light would be the removal of this lack, shortcoming and inadequacy by man bringing the sin offering at the moment when there is no light from the moon. The sin offering does not come as a punishment or a consequence for a mistake in attempt to appease and placate an angry God, but it is a means to focus on our humility and inadequacy like the moon on Rosh Chodesh – the beginning of the month and connect to God. A man who thinks he is a gadol, a great luminary is unable to repent and do teshuva. The word sacrifice in Hebrew is 'korban – קרבן  ' becoming closer to God and in this way he brings more spiritual light to the world. The imperfection and compromise in the moon's capacity now became the catalyst for more light and growth and in this way man would begin to remove the lack until in time the lack is removed and the glory of the moon is restored. We pray for this in the Kiddush levanah – sanctification of the moon prayer – ' may it be the will of God to fill the flaw of the moon that there will be no diminution in it. May the light of the moon be like the light of the sun and like the light of the 7 days of creation, as it was before it was diminished as it is said – the 2 great luminaries. '

The Bible has examples of great people who gained credibility when they admitted mistakes and did teshuva – repented – the brothers of Joseph, Yehuda, and David. In a political climate and an educational system where mistakes are punished we need more than these examples. We need God to teach us the way of the world – derech e'retz that not only does admitting mistakes  and doing teshuva gives people credibility , but mistakes are part of the learning and creative process. In today's world and punitive environment, we would never have had the opportunity to learn from a king David how to repent and do teshuva and see the courage of Yehuda as he was prepared to expose his vulnerability and admit his mistake.  Yehuda was given a leadership role because of this courage. The approach of punishing mistakes rather than encouraging the admitting of  mistakes and doing teshuva promotes immoral behavior, lying, cover-ups and hoping that issues will simply die , impacts on the public system, schools and families.

In academic learning we need to go beyond the right answer to a deeper thinking. Jerome Bruner said – Knowing is a process, not a product.  Confusion, mistakes and the more sophisticated the mistakes lead us to deeper thinking. Ted Sizer said that good schools promote displays of incompetence in order to help students find their way to competence. The focus should be on the student's thinking on how they got the answer and not the answer itself. Good teachers will challenge students with questions and even mistaken ones. In this respect, God himself did something similar. The Gemorrah Bava Metzia 59a relates a halachic dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the sages. Rabbi Eliezer calls upon the carob tree, a stream and the walls of the study hall to perform miracles in order to prove that he was right. He then said, ‘If the law is as I say, let it be proved from Heaven,’ whereupon a heavenly voice cried out: ‘Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the law is as he says!’ But, Rabbi Yehoshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It [the law] is not in heaven’ (Devarim 30:12). What is meant by this? Rabbi Yirmiyahu said: ‘It means that the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a heavenly voice, because You, God, have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, “One must incline after the majority” (Shemot 23:2)'” “Rabbi Nathan met Eliyahu [the prophet, who is considered to be immortal] and asked him: ‘What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that moment [when Rabbi Yehoshua declared that he would not obey His heavenly voice]?’ He replied, ‘He smiled [with joy], saying, my sons have defeated me; my sons have defeated me'. Students who are afraid of making mistakes are unlikely to ask for help when they need it, unlikely to feel safe enough to take intellectual risks and are unlikely to be intrinsically motivated. For the sake of deeper learning and understanding God deliberately makes a mistake to challenge man's thinking and in a sense admits his mistake by acknowledging Rabbi Yehoshua's thinking.

We need to change our attitude to mistakes and see that mistakes are our friends that give us opportunities for growth, teshuva and arriving at the truth.

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