Rectification of Errors at Their Root
Soul-searching…is much more than a simple accounting of profit and loss. Regardless of the kind of problem it deals with – moral, economic, or political – it is an overall reckoning, one that includes a pre-supposition of the possibility of a major, fundamental mistake.
There is a well-known fable about animals who decide to repent because their sins have brought disaster upon them. The wolf and the tiger confess that they prey on other creatures, and they are vindicated. After all, it is in their nature as predators to hunt and kill. All the animals confess their sins in turn, and all of them, for one reason or another, are exonerated. Finally, the sheep admits that she once ate the straw lining of her master’s boots; here, at last, is obviously the true cause of their suffering. All the animals fall upon the wicked sheep and devour it, and everything is in order again.
On the surface, the main point of this fable is to condemn the hypocrisy of people who ignore the sins of the strong and harp on those of the weak. Beyond this, however, there is a more basic and profound message. The animals conducted an accounting that assumes that the general situation may remain as it is. The wolf may keep on hunting, and the tiger may continue preying upon others. If this is the fundamental assumption, then the sin singled out for correction will always be trivial and no real change will be forthcoming.
True soul-searching is based on quite a different premise, one that assumes that the matters that we take for granted, the status quo and the general consensus, are the very things that require re-examination and reassessment.
In the Bible, this is expressed as follows: “They will then confess their sins and the sins of their fathers” (Leviticus 26:40). The same idea in a slightly different formula is contained in the introductory formula of the confession in the daily prayer book: “But we and our fathers have sinned.” The inclusion of our fathers in the confession is not accidental. It represents an attempt not only to examine things on the level of the immediate present, the here and now, but to penetrate to the roots of the matter.
An ancient error does not become more beautiful by virtue of its being ancient. On the contrary, its ancientness makes it more difficult for us to reveal.
The old excuse, “That’s how things have always been done,” or the no less common variation, “Everyone does it,” is no justification for error and sin. The story is told of a man who, standing before a Rabbi, defends himself with the excuse, “But everyone does it,” to which the Rabbi retorts, “Hell is big enough for everyone.”
This essay is adapted from the chapter, “Reckoning and Rectification” in the book Change and Renewal by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz.