I don’t know about you, but I made a lot of mistakes this past year. I forgot to pick up my kids at school once. I gained weight in all the wrong places. I was consistently late in writing this column — and in just about everything else of importance in my life.
This is par for the course, and most of the time, after purging myself on Yom Kippur, I can make it at least to Sukkot before a new mistake haunts me — usually in the form of an injury to myself or a small child during the construction of the sukkah in our backyard.
But something different happened this year. I had been reading Kathryn Schulz’ book “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” and I expected it to follow the logic of Kol Nidre — we are about to make one mistake after another, and that is just too damn bad. Instead, like the sun shining through the shcach on top of the sukkah, she explains that “however disorienting, difficult or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.” Or, quoting St. Augustine: “I err, therefore I am.”
This was news I could use.
And then it occurred to me: The holidays are as much about applying the errors we make as they are about apologizing for them. Perhaps this is why we read the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, on Rosh HaShanah. It sets the stage for all the errors we are about to commit.
Our classic texts seem to view the story of the Akedah as a strange triumph. God asks the ultimate test of faith; Abraham passes this test, demonstrating his ability to be the father of our people; and Isaac, as a dutiful son, obeys his father, asserting the primacy of faith over individual desires. The story is preserved to bolster the idea of spiritual steadfastness, and perhaps to differentiate this new religion from the child-killing paganism that came before.
But now I wondered if the story’s catastrophic chain of errors was preserved to help us learn from our mistakes, as individuals and as a people.
Let us start with Abraham. Before the Akedah, he is busy losing one argument after another with God. First, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah. Then God and Sarah team up on him to send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert. Abraham attempts to preserve life at all costs, but he is overruled. And when God tells him to sacrifice his other son, Abraham does not argue. His error — in this interpretation — is that faced with a God this needy, he has given up hope.
What about Isaac? We learn little from him during the three days he and his father travel to the mountain, other than that Isaac shoulders the wood on the ascent, asking only this question: “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” How does Isaac err? He acts like he is bar mitzvah age, young enough to be naive about his father’s plans but old enough to carry wood up a mountain, when some Talmudic sources suggest he is almost 40 — the age of wisdom. In other words, Isaac sees himself as a victim, a child in a man’s body.
And what can we learn from God’s error? God — at least the character God in this story — is insecure. He is competing against the panoply of mercurial, child-killing deities of the near east for the heart and mind of Abraham. Did God lose his self-respect when Abraham had the audacity to bargain him down from 100 righteous men to 10 in Sodom and Gomorrah? God’s error here is that he didn’t have enough faith in himself.
What do we learn from these mistakes?
Like Abraham losing faith in his ability to maintain the tradition he so painfully created, we are prone to losing hope in our tradition and ourselves, sometimes just at the moment we need it the most. Like Isaac, we see ourselves as victims, unwilling to argue against whatever traditions — religious, communal, intra-psychic — pin us to the rock. And like God, we are insecure about our power and our self-respect — within our family, within our community, and as a Jewish community facing the larger world.
As we enter a year of difficult personal and political choices, I hope we learn to err with greater subtlety and self-awareness. I hope we — as individuals and members of the Jewish people — will be worthy of our best mistakes.
Daniel Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.