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.
She was the superintendent of a small school district just outside of Washington, D.C., one of several in that area that 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 tensions in the community that were caused by the implementation of this order. Working as a school psychologist in this school district, I was one of those chosen to serve on this 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 morning we were summoned to an urgent meeting. She informed us that the funds were not available, and that we would be denied not only our future salaries, but even remuneration for the time we had already spent. It was then that she uttered the words, “I was wrong. Please forgive me.”
I have subsequently witnessed many situations in which a leader made a terrible mistake impacting the lives of others. But, almost invariably, those leaders shirked responsibility, blamed others, or concocted ludicrous excuses for their failures. Very few had Dr. Cassidy’s courage.
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)
The Hebrew for the first phrase in the above quotation, “in case,” is “asher.” Rashi notes the similarity between the word “asher” and the word “ashrei,” or “fortunate.” Based on that similarity he comments: “Fortunate is the generation whose leader is concerned about achieving forgiveness for his unintentional transgressions. How much more so will he demonstrate remorse for his intentional misdeeds.”
Our commentators note that it is to be expected that leaders will commit moral errors. Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, the medieval Italian physician and Torah scholar, comments that it is unavoidable that men in positions of power will sin. He quotes the phrase in Deuteronomy 32:15 that reads, “Jeshurun grew fat and kicked,” indicating that when one becomes “fat” with power he will “kick” sinfully.
If the Torah assumes that misdeeds by leaders are unavoidable, it also expects that those leaders will humbly acknowledge their misdeeds and beg forgiveness for them. However, the process cannot end there. His followers must accept his sincere regret and even bring themselves to forgive him.
So, let’s return to the story of Dr. Cassidy, who proved herself to be capable of confessing her mistake. But I also remember our reaction, which was one of great anger. We asked her to leave the room so that we could plan our next step. We managed to move from anger and frustration to empathizing with her dilemma, and finally, deciding to express to her our understanding and forgiveness.
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 training 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.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.