Parashat Naso: Learning From Mistakes

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

Nothing is more difficult than admitting a mistake, but nothing is more human than making one. There are several places where the Torah deals with making mistakes and the merit of admitting one’s mistakes. In our parsha, we learn of the sota, a wife who is suspected of adultery. When the sota is accused, she is encouraged to admit her mistake if she is guilty, and to accept a writ of divorce from her husband. If she denies her guilt then she is forced to drink the bitter waters to prove her innocence. If she is guilty, she will die; if she is innocent, she will be cleared of all suspicion. The law of sota teaches an important lesson. We often rationalize our own mistaken and misguided behaviors instead of facing our flaws and mistakes. The law of sota highlights the importance of admitting one’s wrongdoing in order to move forward and engage in the rehabilitative process of repentance. Without the ability to admit our own wrongdoing, we risk losing the hope of being able to move on.

Immediately following its description of the ordeal of the sota, the Torah addresses the vow of the nazir, or Nazarite. This is a voluntary vow that any individual can take upon him or herself. The vow requires the person to avoid wine or any grape product, to refrain from cutting his or her hair, and to avoid all contact with the dead for a fixed period of time. Why do the laws of nazir follow the laws of the sota? Rashi comments that: “Whoever sees an adulteress in her disgrace should vow to abstain from wine, for it leads to adultery.” One should learn from the experience of seeing another person, the suspected adulteress, make a mistake by committing oneself not to make the same mistake through taking the vows of a nazir.

The ordering of the laws for the sota and the nazir in this week’s Torah portion teaches us that we can learn from others’ mistakes and through the safeguards of our Torah. We do not need to suffer through devastating consequences in order to learn to live differently.

The effect of the prayers we say on Yom Kippur and other times during the year is to create a culture in which people are not ashamed or embarrassed to say, “I got it wrong, I sinned, I made mistakes.” However, the inclination to admit mistakes is anything but widespread. Our instinct is to rationalize. We justify. We deny. We blame others. We have almost an infinite capacity for interpreting the facts to vindicate ourselves.

Maimonides teaches us that true teshuvah, true repentance, occurs when we find ourselves in the same situation and we don’t make the same mistake. But he doesn’t tell us that true repentance means we won’t make any mistakes anymore. Mistakes and failures can happen even when we do our best.

Conventional wisdom tells us that mistakes are valuable teachers. They are how we grow and gain a better understanding of our world. They teach us how to behave. They enable us to teach others what we have learned. “I made a mistake” are four words nobody ever wants to utter. But mistakes are a natural part of human growth and development.

Recognizing that no individual is flawless, it becomes critical for each person to be willing to examine him or herself, to improve, and to learn in order to become better than before. And one of the key ways in which we learn is through making mistakes. When we make a mistake, we receive feedback from our environment that lets us know that we have done something wrong. This feedback is essential for our learning and development. If we did not receive this feedback, we would not be able to improve our behavior and would continue making the same mistakes over and over.

We know it is important to learn from our mistakes, but this is not always easy to do. We often find it difficult to let go of our old ways of doing things, even when we know that they are not working for us. Some of us also might feel as though admitting our mistakes makes us look weak. Our resistance to change can be a major obstacle to our learning and growth.

But admitting to and correcting your mistakes does not make you look weak; it actually makes you look stronger. When you admit mistakes, you establish a culture of open communication and demonstrate your willingness to improve. You set an example for others with your attitude that acknowledging our mistakes teaches us to do better in the future.

Mistakes teach us about who we are. Messing things up is a crucial part of gaining information about ourselves and our lives. It can free us up to pursue our goals. Theodore Roosevelt said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.” While the fear of failure can often prevent us from trying new things, accepting mistakes as part of life can have the opposite effect—freeing us up to pursue our goals without limitation.  It can help us clarify our priorities.

Mistakes are perfectly normal parts of the experience of life. Time and time again, we are told that our mistakes don’t define us, however, some people feel differently. Although we are not our mistakes, there is a way our mistakes do define us, because of the impact they have on us. The specific mistake we make is not as important as what we get from that mistake. Mistakes define us because, if we cannot make up for the mistakes we have made, we are at least supposed to learn from them. Thomas Edison said: “I have not failed 1,000 times to make a light bulb. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways not to make a light bulb.”

And, some mistakes can have unexpected, positive outcomes. For example, in 1928, Alexander Fleming left a Petri dish out on a lab table which became contaminated with a particular mold; this mistake led to the discovery of penicillin. 

Everyone makes a mistake once in a while. It is natural to try and run from mistakes, cut losses, hope nobody notices or makes a fuss, and then move on. In reality, our mistakes are precious opportunities. They give us insight into life and ourselves and allow us to become stronger by learning to avoid the same pitfalls in the future. In this week’s parasha, we learn about the comeback process after making a big mistake. Mistakes are a built-in feature of life. And they happen for a very good reason. When they do happen, there is an acknowledgement of the error and a process of improvement. Life is a journey of growth and development, and we can only grow if we know where we are deficient. A mistake supplies that piece of the puzzle. Our mistakes teach us what not to do in the future and show us character traits we can improve.

Our mistakes take us to where we need to be. They were meant to happen, and mistakes will happen again and again. Just look back and be thankful for the lessons you learned because of them. They gave you character and molded you to become a better person. You need to make mistakes to encourage and inspire you.

I found an anonymous quote: “Remember that life’s greatest lessons are usually learned at the worst times and from the worst mistakes.” In New York City, you can find the Museum of Failure. It documents 150 failures such as New Coke, Crystal Pepsi, the Edsel and DeLorean, Sony Betamax, Potato chips with Olestra and many more examples. Statements you see in the museum include: “If we don’t have failure, we don’t have innovation,” and “No progress without failure.”

In summary, learning from our mistakes is essential for both our personal and professional development. It allows us to avoid repeating the same mistakes, grow as individuals, and become more productive members of society. Mistakes are proof that you are trying. Mistakes have the power to turn you into something better than you were before.

So, here’s to your next mistake.