Does G-d make mistakes? And a Secret About Us

Does G-d make mistakes? Most people would say, “No, of course not. G-d is perfect. G-d knows everything that is going to happen before it happens. What G-d does is by definition good. G-d cannot make and has never made a mistake.” But I disagree, and I base my argument on the Torah itself. Before G-d sends the Flood to wipe out humankind for its evil, He states that He regrets that He ever made human beings. After He saves Noah and his family, G-d says, “Never again. I will never do anything like that again. I understand now that human beings are capable of great evil but it doesn’t matter. I still won’t ever destroy the world again.”

If G-d knew that people were going to be evil, and if He knew that they were going to be so evil that He would send a Flood, and if He knew that He would regret sending the Flood, why didn’t he do things differently? For instance, why not just start the world with Noah and skip the preliminaries? Simple answer: He did not know what was going to happen. He gave human beings free will and watched as they used their free will for evil. And if He knew how He was going to feel after sending the Flood, why did He send it? Simple answer: He did not know how He was going to feel.

I want to talk today about mistakes because mistakes go right to the heart of the High Holidays. Whether we acknowledge our mistakes, whether we make up for them, whether we change, these are the crucial issues involved. I began by asking what seemed to be a preposterous question: “Does G-d make mistakes?” Since the answer is yes, since even G-d makes mistakes, we understand that no one is perfect if perfection means acting without mistakes or regrets.
We say it every day: Everybody makes mistakes.
But why do we make mistakes?
Usually in our lives, we have the time to think things out. Whether it’s a relationship or an operation or a new job or the choice of a school, there’s usually time to think it all out.
And then we place our bet. We’ve done our homework. It is an informed decision.
But it can turn out that the decision we made was a big mistake.
When this happens, it’s useful and intellectually healthy to go back and look at why you decided to do what you did. Given that information, not the information you have now that it’s turned out badly, but given the information you had at the time, was it the best decision? By going back and thinking it through, you will learn and grow. You will now understand what you had missed before, perhaps the factor that made a good decision turn into a bad one.

I watch pro golfers on television taking their best shot. And I’ve noticed that some of them will, after they’ve already swung and hit the ball, swing again into the air, now, after the fact and without the ball, looking at how they swung. It’s as if to say, “This was my swing. This was my trained best effort. And look at how that ball went into the trees. But you know, it was a good swing and I tried as hard as I could.”
After a decision you made turns out to be a mistake, look at your swing again. Keep working on your swing. And on the next hole, maybe you’ll stay out of the trees.

While many are very happy to criticize Israel for its mistakes, I’m not one of them. What I see is a country that often makes mistakes because it wants peace so much. A Prime Minister of Israel went to the negotiating table and made a mistake by offering Yassir Arafat 95% or more of what he said he wanted, only to be rebuffed. You can’t negotiate with someone who wants to kill you and destroy your country. But it was a mistake in the pursuit of peace.  Israel has often propped Arafat up, hoping he would also work for peace. Looking back, this was a set of naïve mistakes. But given what we knew, given the ideal of peace, it might have been the best opportunity at the time. It’s like the poker player who lost his shirt in a high-stakes game. Afterwards, he explained that he had played properly and well. In reviewing what he had done, he was still ready to say, “That was the correct bet.” In other words, given what he knew, he did the right thing.

That’s how we must think about out our mistakes: “Yes I made a mistake. But here’s what I knew then, and here’s why I did what I did.
Did it turn out to be a mistake? Yes, but it wasn’t a mistake to try.”

There are good decisions that we make that become mistakes, but that does not mean that they were mistakes when we made the decision.
We are all gambling.
What college should I go to?
Should I marry that guy?
Should I take this job or wait for another offer?
Should we buy a condo or rent one?
We gather all of the information we can and we make an informed decision, but we know that we cannot be sure how it will all turn out.

I stood here a year ago and strongly supported what was then only the possibility of a war against Iraq. As the months progressed after I gave that sermon, our leaders and our experts told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Certainly, everything about Hussein’s behavior indicated that he had such weapons. Why play games with inspectors if he had nothing to hide? I can only conclude, following the theory of Hans Blix, that Hussein did not want to admit that he did not have weapons of mass destruction, that his corrupt and incompetent regime had not been able to produce or maintain them. Or as my son Josh says, it was a poker table, and Saddam was bluffing. This bluff, this perverted pride cost his country and many others, including our country, terrible loss of life and terrible suffering.

I wanted our country to make war on Saddam Hussein. But in classes and speeches I gave during the months between Rosh Hashanah and the war, I kept talking about the reasons for war. What is a just war? Even as I supported the war, I kept searching the Jewish sources for guidance, and I kept thinking and talking about whether this war was justified. One type of just war is one to protect oneself or one’s allies, even pre-emptively.
I based my support for the war on Iraq not only on my conviction, since then borne out only too well, that Saddam Hussein was an evil tyrant who should not be allowed to rule, but also on my belief, since then not borne out at all, that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction and already had some types at his disposal.   

So here we are now, certain that an evil has been eradicated but uncertain about how we should feel about the leaders who told us that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the war and to win the support of those who were uncertain about it.

I ask myself, “Was I right to support the war?” And the answer comes back, “Based on what we knew, or were told, or thought we knew, yes, that was correct.”

In life, all we can do is make our judgments, our decisions, our bets, based on what we know or think we know. To think that we will never form what turns out to be the wrong opinion is naive.
Some of the early critics of the war kept asking, “What are we going to do after we’ve won?” It was a good question, and even now, we’re still waiting for the answer.  That is a perfect example of a very common mistake, which I like to call, “One-move wonders.”

When I play chess with my son Danny, I’ll make a move and he’ll look at me and ask, “Why did you make that move? You knew exactly how I would respond. You knew you’d just have to move back, that you would waste a move and that I’d have a better position. Why didn’t you think it out more than one move?”

He is, of course, correct, and the principle is correct whether it’s a country going to war or in any of the plans we make. You’ve got to think more than one move ahead. Otherwise, your move may very well prove to be a mistake.

I know some people who were thinking about buying a house. They came to me and said that they love the house but that the mortgage would be so high that they wouldn’t be able to buy furniture. I told them not to buy the house. They bought the house. They have a bed and a tv and an old table and a lot of empty rooms. They don’t like living in an empty house. They weren’t thinking past their first move of moving to that new house.   

To go back to my woes on the chessboard, what am I supposed to do? Life has placed me across the chessboard from someone who can see many moves ahead and different possible scenarios. I have to do something. He’s coming for me. To merely react to what he does will get me smashed. I have to do something but I don’t know what. So, in order to try, I make one of my one-move wonders and say a beracha.
I’m afraid that in the overarching war against terrorism, our government sometimes stumbles ahead, one move at a time, and says its version of a beracha. The government tries to act, operating out of a sense of emergency but also with a great and historical vision, trying not just to react to what the other side is doing. I credit them with trying, and I believe and I hope that we are in better shape than we were two years ago.

There’s another mistake about Iraq that is boggling my mind. When the administration was asked how it would pay for the reconstruction of Iraq, it said that money from Iraqi oil would cover all that, that many billions of dollars a year would be collected from oil revenues. Now it turns out that the Iraqi oil industry has been out of date since the 1970s and that only a fraction of those revenues will be realized. Now it turns out that 87 billion dollars will be needed as a down payment on what we’re going to spend. How could it be that an administration run by oilmen could have understood so little about the oil industry of Iraq? There are two possibilities, that, again, we had poor intelligence, or that someone was lying all along. Satellite photos tell you what you need to know about both the weapon and oil industries.
But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt: They made mistakes based on bad information. If we assume anything else, we may be talking about a cynical charade unparalleled in American history.
Remember the poker player who replayed the game in his head and stated that he would have played it the same way all over again.
But when it comes to the war against Iraq, if we had had the correct information, if we had known that they did not have weapons of mass destruction nor a formidable oil industry, would we have fought that war? My own opinions aside, the answer is no.

I wish that President Bush would get up and say: “Based on the intelligence we had, we thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. We still can’t figure the whole thing out. When we said that they had such weapons, we were not lying or exaggerating. The evidence and intelligence we had or thought we had pointed to the necessity of making war on Iraq. It turns out that we were mistaken about what weapons they actually had. And we were mistaken about the shape in which we would find their oil industry. We need to move on from here. I’m sorry for these mistakes.”  
Wouldn’t that be refreshing? That would be some Day of Atonement. Word to the wise: Don’t hold your breath.

But I’m not only talking about the current President. Recent history shows one president after another who could not admit that he had made a mistake. Think about President Lyndon Johnson who could not admit the mistake we refer to as the Vietnam War. Read David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest or see a great movie called Path to War and remember how, rather than admit a mistake, we lost more and more lives. Think about President Bill Clinton who could have said, “Look, the whole country knew I have a weakness. You knew it before you elected me and re-elected me. I’m sorry. I made a mistake.” Instead, he would not admit his mistake and he threw our country into a standstill for a year. I wonder sometimes what we could have been doing better during that year of constitutional crisis. Think about President Richard Nixon and that constitutional crisis that might have been avoided by an admission of political espionage in a building called Watergate. The pattern is clear: Rather than admit a mistake, our presidents seem quite willing to let our country suffer. They are thinking about their pride or their ambition: they should be thinking about the people they swore to serve.

Let me turn from the political world to the religious one. The Catholic Church has been wracked with wrenching issues in recent years, and many of them come from the inability to say that there have been mistakes. Many of the mistakes that the Church has made are because it is trapped inside the doctrine of infallibility. This doctrine states that the Pope cannot make a mistake. The doctrine is a relatively new one, decreed in the nineteenth century over bitter opposition from many cardinals. For Catholics, infallibility has led to issues that have distanced them from their religion, such as birth control, abortion and divorce. And now the world is only too aware of the horrible, horrible abuse scandal that must be considered an obscene travesty of everything holy. How did it happen? Why was it covered up for so long?
The Church has not only been concerned about exposing the crimes of many priests. It did not want to reveal how its system worked. This revelation threatened the power of its institutions and thus has been resisted beyond reason. Under the rubric “preserve the church from scandal,” the Church has made a corrupt bargain. It preserves a system of brotherhood of guaranteed employment, respectability, and power, no matter what, no matter what.

For Jewish people, the doctrine of infallibility reaches a raw nerve when the Church tries to make a saint out of the Pope, Pius XII, who did not speak out against the Holocaust. Why make him a saint? Because to admit that he made a mistake by failing to oppose the Nazis would undermine their precious doctrine of infallibility. Was Pius XII a saint? Was he a monster who did not care about the deaths of millions of Jewish people? Why didn’t he stand up and say anything against the Nazis? I’m going to teach a three-week course starting in a few weeks, reviewing both the Roman Catholic defense of Pius XII and the accusations of his appeasement of evil. But for my purpose here, whatever he felt or didn’t feel, it remains true that he did not speak out. When, after the war in 1946, he said that he had spoken out, he was speaking a deliberate falsehood. This shows that he knew that he made a mistake.

Instead of dealing in falsehood, why not tell the truth? Explain the pressures you were under or the information you had or the intentions you had. Why didn’t he tell the truth? Because he could not and would not admit that he made a mistake.

Infallibility. Never admit you’re wrong. Those of us who are not President or popes may not affect history or create constitutional crises by refusing to admit our mistakes, but many of us live within the doctrine of infallibility. There are many people in this room who will never admit to themselves, much less to anyone else, that they made a mistake. Problems always ensue from there.
The irony is that we make a terrible mistake by saying that we cannot make a mistake. The inability to be intellectually honest leads to incredible dishonesty.
Growth as a human being can only happen if you realize that you have been making mistakes and that you can and must do better.

Now let’s go back to G-d. G-d made humans and then regretted it. He had to start again. Sometimes, after we’ve taken our best shot, in our relationships or our jobs or any of the countless decisions we have to make, we have to start again, we have to wash it all away and start again. G-d realized that a Noah alone wouldn’t change human history; it would take a people to carry the message of peace and humanity to the world. We are that people.

In the first chapter of the Torah, when G-d is going to create human beings, He says, “Let us make humans in our own image.” The age-old question is: “Who’s us?” The Rabbis give us a midrash that states that before G-d created humans, He consulted His council of angels who had quite a debate about whether humans, prone to evil, should be created. Being human, I have always resented that Midrash. But now, being older, having seen what humans do to each other, I wonder sometimes if humanity is worthy of creation. I understand why G-d started to think that He’d made a mistake and wiped almost all of us out in the Flood.
But then I remember that after the Flood, G-d said that He would never destroy humanity again, even though we do evil.

My theory is that G-d, having realized that He made a mistake, was now willing to allow His creations to make mistakes. That wonderful understanding, that Divine forgiveness, that sensitive acceptance, is a model for all of us. We have to understand that while we try to make the best decisions, while we try to become informed and knowledgeable before doing anything important, there are correct bets that will turn out badly. We’ll grow from those mistakes by learning from them. We’ll forgive ourselves because we did the best we could. But what we must not do is to be so proud, so full of ourselves, that we think that we are infallible. Whenever you feel that way, whenever you compound a mistake by not admitting you made it, just say to yourself these magic words:
G-d makes mistakes, and though I don’t enjoy admitting it, so do I.