Learning From The Mistakes of Others

This week, we learned important moral lessons from national and international leaders.  Unfortunately, we learned these lessons because of mistakes made by these leaders.  Nonetheless, the lssons are ones we must all take to heart.

A private conversation between President Obama and French President Sarkozy in which the two leaders made disparaging comments about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was captured on a live microphone (certainly not the first time important people have found themselves in such a situation!). Abe Foxman, the National Director of the ADL expressed concern over these comments, stating: ” we now have to worry to what extent these private views inform foreign policy decisions of the U.S. and France ˆ two singularly important players in the peace process.” The lesson we learn from this exchange is a lesson that lies at the core of Judaism: our words are like arrows – once they leave our mouths, like an arrow, they can’t be pulled back; the damage they do can’t be stopped; the harm they do can’t always be predicted because, like arrows, words go astray. The lesson: live our lives as if all of our words will be broadcast on the front page of the newspaper.

A much more disturbing lesson has been taught by what appears to be the shameful inaction of the administration of Penn State’s football team. As a result of this inaction, children were sexually abused. Responsible, respected, well-known adults ˆ leaders ˆ knew what was going on ˆ and, according to reports, they did nothing to stop it. Again, the lesson we learn from this tragedy is one that lies at the core of Judaism: Jews don’t simply believe, we act. It is not enough to know that something is wrong; when something is wrong, we must act to stop it. There is no alternative.

In Pirke Avot, we are taught “Who is wise? He who learns from every man.” We don’t ever want others to stumble. But, it happens. Just as we must learn from our own mistakes, we must learn from the mistakes of others. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, once said that: “We shall learn from the historic mistakes of others in the same way as we learn from our own; for we are a modern nation and wish to be the most modern in the world.” In the same way, to become the best people we can be, we must learn from our own failures and the failures of others. This week, we have unfortunately had the opportunity to learn a lot. Hopefully, we have all incorporated these lessons into our lives and grown because of them.


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