I was wrong. I am sorry. Please forgive me.” These are rare words indeed, but I heard them pronounced clearly by a woman I once worked for, and whom I still admire.
She was the superintendent of a small school district just outside of Washington, D.C. Several of the school districts in that geographical area were under a federal court order to guarantee desegregation of the races in the public schools. The superintendent, whom I will call Dr. Cassidy, had selected a group of school system employees to serve as part of a specially trained team to deal with the resulting tensions in the community.
Working as a school psychologist in this district, I was one of those chosen for the team. We had spent several weeks training for this sensitive human relations project. She had initially assured us that federal funding for our salaries was guaranteed, and that we could be confident that our jobs were secure once certain formalities were finalized.
One Monday morning we were summoned to an urgent meeting. She informed us that the funds were not available, and that we would be denied remuneration even for the time we had already spent. She then uttered the words, “I was wrong. Please forgive me.”
I have subsequently witnessed many situations in which a leader made a terrible mistake impacting upon the lives of others. But, almost invariably, those leaders shirked responsibility, blamed others, or concocted ludicrous excuses for their failures.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, describes an individual who demonstrated just such courage, and who indeed was expected to do so. Chapter 4 of our Torah portion lists a number of individuals who occupied special roles in the ancient Jewish community. They included the High Priest; the judges of the central court or Sanhedrin; and the Nasi, or chieftain. Of the latter, we read:
“In case it is a chieftain who incurs guilt by doing unwittingly any of the things which by the commandment of the Lord his God ought not to be done, and he realizes his guilt…He shall bring as his sin offering a male goat without blemish…Thus the priest shall make expiation on his behalf for his sin, and he shall be forgiven.” (Leviticus 4:22-26)
Our commentators note that it is to be expected that leaders will commit moral errors. The Torah also expects that those leaders will humbly acknowledge their misdeeds and beg forgiveness for them. However, the process cannot end with the leader’s apologies. His followers must accept his sincere regret, and, much more difficult, must bring themselves to forgive him. In the passage in our parsha, it would seem that it is the Almighty who forgives a leader, and not necessarily the people.
Yet, our sages point out that the Almighty wants us to be as forgiving as He is. Thus, there is a verse in the book of the prophet Micah which reads, “Who is a God like You, forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression…?”
So, let’s return to the story with which I began this column. Cassidy proved herself to be capable of confessing that she was mistaken, and of asking us to forgive her. But I also remember our reaction, initially one of great anger, before we decided to acknowledge her good intentions and express to her our understanding and forgiveness.
She was visibly touched by our response. And perhaps emboldened by the support she felt from us, she renewed her efforts to obtain the grant from the federal agency, and obtained the funds available for this program.
The lessons of ordinary life often parallel the lessons of the Torah. For a society to advance, its leaders must be self-aware and courageous enough to recognize and confess their failures, and to seek forgiveness from those whom they have affronted. Equally important, those who have been affronted most find it in their hearts to sincerely forgive.
Only then can problems be solved, and greater goals achieved.