OUR MODE OF CHANGE AND INNOVATION IS THE CORRECTING OF MISTAKES
By Rachel Lav Ictoirei
“We,” as a construct of our smaller communities – our close family, friends, maybe even a neighborhood – are interactive, and are therefore always growing our relationships and changing as needed. Finally, “we,” as a general “we” of human beings, are innovative –tirelessly pursuing new ideas and ways of navigating through our world.
In each of these ways, we’re changing. But specifically, we’re changing as a means of adapting. We recognize that something isn’t right, or even just isn’t as right as it could be, and we adjust and reconsider, and then maybe later we’ll adjust again. And what’s at the forefront of all this revision is that, quite plainly, there has to be something to revise—we have to make a mistake, and even continue to make mistakes.
The Israelites’ actions in this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, stood at the intersection of improvement and error. Still en route to the Promised Land, the Israelites grew tired and hungry. They cried out to G-d and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread” (Numbers 21:5). At that point, G-d sent venomous snakes to kill the Israelites. Many of them did die, but short after the Israelites begged Moses to talk to G-d on their behalf: “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that He remove the snakes from us.” (21:7).
This story may sound remarkably familiar, and rightfully so. Only a few weeks ago (in terms of the actual reading of the Torah), the Israelites pulled a similar stunt. When Israelite spies returned from scouting the AJT Promised Land only to report that the land was unconquerable, the Israelites called out, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert.” (14:2). G-d, angry about the Israelite’s betrayal, threatened to kill them all. Moses, acting entirely on his own accord, spoke with G-d, asking, “Please forgive the iniquity of this nation in accordance with your abounding kindness, as You have borne this people from Egypt until now” (14:19).
A few weeks ago, the Israelites weren’t apologetic. They’d been ungrateful, rude, and disloyal; and they didn’t’ even realized it. In this week’s parshah, we see that they made progress. They still acted wrongly towards G-d, still been just as ungrateful as before; but this time they realized it. They approached Moses this time to help them, and in the end, G-d once again showed mercy and forgave them.
Now, no one enjoys making mistakes. Whether it’s public or private, life changing or insignificant – it doesn’t matter. Making a mistake is simply not fun. However, we really ought to consider the alternative: what would happen had we not made the mistake? We’re inclined to answer that things would be great. After all, if we’re never messing things up, then we’ll never experience guilt or regret; we’ll never be scolded or looked down upon; and obviously would simply live, and live happily and perfectly.
Unfortunately, this isn’t so. To live a life without mistakes is to live a life that’s risk-free and stagnant. As I pointed out earlier, our mode of change and innovation is the correcting of mistakes. Without one, we can’t have the other. Take for example the situation of the Israelites. Their mistake was speaking out against G-d, in both instances. The resulting change was that they developed a better understanding of how their relationship with G-d should be (though, as clearly exemplified by their second mistake, they still had further developing to do). Had they not spoken out, the feelings still would have existed. They would have grown distant from G-d, resenting Him for what they perceived to be His negligence. Fortunately, and I want to emphasize here that it is in fact fortunate, they chose to take a risk and voice their anger with G-d. It was a mistake, as far as we commonly understand mistakes: it upset G-d, it was out of line, and it deserved punishment. But as a mistake, it perpetuated adaption and change across the Israelites. This week, we saw that change. The Israelites felt guilty for what they’d done—a clear sign that they’d grown more considerate in their relationship with G-d.
We, in all senses of the word, are not perfect. And luckily, we will never be perfect. I’m not saying mistakes are things to be celebrated. Certainly they’re still embarrassing and frustrating, and still often bring harmful consequences; but they’re also not something to be feared or ashamed of. Eventually, if you allow yourself, you can overcome your mistakes just as the Israelites did. The likelihood is that the people in your life will both support you and forgive you because, similar to G-d’s understanding of the Israelites, the people in your life know you’re not perfect.
Rachel LaVictoire (rlavictoire@wustl. edu) is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. She was recently named to the board of St. Louis Hillel.