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September 25, 2022 | Modeh Ani: I am Wrong and I am Grateful (Rosh HaShanah 5783)

Daniel S. Ross

Modeh Ani: I am Wrong and I am Grateful
Rabbi Dan Ross, Rosh HaShanah 5783


Good evening everyone.
It’s so very good to see you, to return to this Sanctuary with you, to celebrate this holiday with you.
What an incredible blessing to be back together.

One day last summer, I was walking my dog, listening to my audiobook, when I learned I had been wrong about something my entire life.
Worse yet, I had spread the error of my ways to scores of middle-schoolers back when I was a teacher.

What, you ask, was I wrong about?
Multiple-choice tests.

Now, when taking a multiple-choice test, what are you supposed to do if you don’t know one of the answers?

I had always been a believer in the “go with your gut” approach.
Don’t waste time second-guessing.
Don’t go back and change your answer.
Close your book and be done.

And I was wrong.

I learned I was wrong from a recent book by organizational psychologist Adam Grant entitled Think Again.
Yes, this is the kind of book I listen to while walking my dog.

In the book, Grant reveals that 33 studies have found that when test-takers go back and change their responses, the majority of the time they switch from an incorrect answer to the correct one.[1]

I’m not sharing this story to rekindle in us the stress of the SATs.
I’m sharing it because of a fascinating bit of etymology that is especially relevant to us tonight.

Because it just so happens that the Hebrew word for “answer” is teshuvah.

Yes, as in the teshuvah, the repentance, of this season.
And these words aren’t just homonyms like tree bark and the dog barked.
The Hebrew root at the heart of these two “teshuvahs” is shin-vav-bet--shuv, which means “to return”.
As in: “when we repent we return to right path.”
Or…“She returned to that tricky question on the test, thought about it again, and returned the right answer.”

On this Erev Rosh Hashanah, as we welcome 5783, I submit to you that now is a good time to heed the wisdom implicit in our people’s ancient tongue.
For this season of teshuvah calls upon us not just to return and repent for our sins, but also, to return and rethink the answers in our lives we’ve held most dear.
It asks us to consider not just those individuals we’ve wronged, but also those times we’ve been wrong.

And as it turns out, today, Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of world, is an especially appropriate time for this kind of teshuvah.
Because our tradition teaches us that this kind of teshuvah is baked into the clay of creation itself.
A midrash tells us that before creating the world God traced its foundations only to discover that the world would not stand.
Creation kept collapsing and collapsing and collapsing.
God had missed something critical, something essential.
What was that missing ingredient?
The answer, according to the midrash, was teshuvah.[2]

Think about that for a moment.
We are familiar with the aphorism, “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
But our tradition teaches that, like us, the Divine also errs.
When God first attempted to create the world, God made a mistake.
Because God failed to account for the very idea of mistakes.

This midrash reminds me of a beautiful passage from Dara Horn’s novel The World To Come: “‘Everybody…likes to pave their roads with good intentions,... but those roads never seemed to get me anywhere…So I built this one out of stupid mistakes instead...Mistakes are a very durable building material…Most people just throw them away as soon as possible and never realize that you can learn from them. But if you do, they can actually hold you up pretty well.’”[3]

We make a lot of mistakes.
We are wrong with spectacular regularity.
We’re wrong about multiple-choice tests.
We’re wrong about the weather.
We’re wrong about the odds of the Mets winning the World Series.
As my wife Jade loves to remind me, I was wrong about pasta bowls.
I thought we’d never use them, and it turns out they are utterly indispensable.

Sometimes, we’re wrong about bigger things.
Very deep and often painful things.
Our most cherished beliefs.
The people we love.
The very purpose of our lives.

In her book Being Wrong, journalist Kathryn Schulz writes: “Twelve hundred years before…Descartes penned his famous ‘I think, therefore I am,’ the philosopher and theologian…Augustine wrote ‘fallor ergo sum’: I err, therefore I am.
[According to Augustine], the capacity to get things wrong is not only part of being alive, but in some sense proof of it.”[4]

Why is that? Our tradition tells us: because that’s the way God made us.
If, as the midrash teaches, God made a mistake when creating the world, then all the more so should we, those imperfect beings created in the Divine image, expect to make mistakes as we live in it.
“Because…”, Schulz writes, “…unlike God, we don't really know what's going on out there.
And unlike all of the other animals, we are obsessed with trying to figure it out. … [This] obsession is the source…of all of our productivity and creativity.”[5]
And it also the source of our constant wrongness.
The two sides of God’s creative coin.

As elemental as this idea is to being human, it is even more fundamental to being Jewish.
In fact, it is very basis of our people’s name.

In Hebrew, the name of our namesake ancestor Judah is Yehudah, which comes from the root yud-dalet-hey, which we usually translate as “gratitude”.
For example, it is the root of the Hebrew word modeh, as in “modeh ani lefanecha”, “I am grateful before you”, which are traditionally the first words Jews say when we wake up in the morning.

However, “gratitude” isn’t the only definition of the root yud-dalet-hey.
It also carries another rather interesting meaning: “to admit a mistake.”
In fact, in the Talmud, when one rabbi concedes a point to another, the Hebrew word we find is “modeh”.
As in “Rabbi Akiva modeh…”--“Rabbi Akiva concedes that his colleague is correct…”

Which offers us a different way understand the words that we the descendants of Judah, of Yehudah, offer to God every morning with our first waking breath: “Modeh ani lefanecha”--“I am wrong before you.”
Fallor ergo sum.
I err therefore I am.

Our tradition invites us to speak the hardest words any of us ever have to say first thing every day: “I. Am. Wrong.”

What makes this simple, three-syllable sentence the most difficult one to utter in the English language?

There are of course myriad reasons, but this evening I would point to three.

The first is our craving for the certainty that comes with being right.
This is the law of cognitive inertia.
Once we’ve set our mental course, we aren’t keen to change direction.
In Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz likens this phenomenon to the frequent plight of Wile E. Coyote.
In the classic cartoons, as Mr. Coyote chases after the Road Runner, he continues running off the edge of a cliff.
Inertia keeps him going until he looks down.
And then, when he realizes there’s nothing but air beneath his feet, he falls.
This is what happens when we learn that we’re wrong: the solid ground of certainty disappears and we can find ourselves in a terrifying free fall.[6]

Second, there’s our belief in the righteousness of being right.
The very words of that sentence illustrate my point.
We conflate rightness with righteousness.
We believe that to be wrong is not just error in knowledge, but a failure of character.
How can I be a good person if I make so many mistakes?

Third, there’s the threat to our identity of being wrong.
Adam Grant writes that when we admit we’re wrong, “[it can make us] feel as if we’re losing a part of ourselves.”[7]
What does it say about me if I pursued the wrong profession?
Now that I’ve changed my views, how should I view myself?

Uncertainty, moral stain, losing our essential identity, these are among our greatest existential fears.
And when we realize we’re wrong, they routinely rise up and bring us down.

What can we do in the face of such fears?
How can we overcome the paralysis of this dread?
Or, put Jewishly, is there a way for us to say “modeh ani” everyday holding both its meanings to be true: “I am wrong” and “I am grateful.”?

In the Talmud we learn that there was once a rabbinic debate so contentious that God decided to intervene.
On one side there was Rabbi Eliezer and on the other, Rabbi Yehoshua.
And God sided with Rabbi Eliezer.
In support of Rabbi Eliezer’s position, God put on a show.
First, God caused a tree to leap 100 cubits.
Then God caused a stream to flow backwards.
And then God shook the walls of the house of study.
But none of these miracles impressed the other rabbis.
And so finally, God opened the heavens and spoke unmitigated.
God said: “Rabbi Eliezer is right!”
Rabbi Yehoshua shouted back: “The Torah is not in Heaven! God, you don’t get a say in this.”
And God retreated, and Rabbi Eliezer was overruled.
Years later, Elijah the prophet was asked how God reacted to Rabbi Yehoshua’s rebuttal.
Elijah replied: “God said, ‘My children have defeated me.’” And then, God smiled.[8]

Imagine that smile.
See it clearly: the light of God’s shining face.
And consider this: we too can face our fallibility with a smile.
Because lest we object–“Well you’re talking about God, I’m only human”--remember that we were created in God’s image.
I’m not saying that it’s easy.
Smiling famously uses more muscles than scowling.
But when we smile at our mistakes, we can see God’s face in the mirror.
And we remember that God formed us from the dust of the earth with a fundamental goodness.
A goodness that transcends the mundane categories of right and wrong.
We are so much more than our mistakes.

In Think Again, Adam Grant shares a story about an encounter he had with Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman.
Suffice it to say, Kahneman has been one of the “rightest” people in history.
His work in behavioral economics won him a Nobel Prize, and has influenced everything from tax policy to Major League Baseball. Yet after hearing Grant present his research at a conference, Kahneman approached him with a big grin and said: “That was wonderful…I was wrong.”[9]
Later, [Grant] sat down with Kahneman and asked him about…[his] joy of being wrong…[Kahneman’s] eyes twinkled as if he was having fun. He said that in his eighty-five years, no one had pointed that out before, but yes, he genuinely enjoys discovering that he was wrong, because it means he is now less wrong than before.”[10]

Less wrong than before–now that’s a happy way of putting it.
And it captures something deeply true about being wrong.
I’ll be the first to admit that being right tastes great.
But being wrong is ultimately more filling.
Because it’s how we learn, how we discover, how we grow.
Sometimes it’s hard to taste in that first bitter bite, but it’s always baked in.
Just like teshuvah is baked into the clay of creation.

Let me tell you about a time I was happy to be wrong.
I never thought I would be here on this bimah.
Or on any bimah for that matter.
From my first day in rabbinical school, my classmates, and everyone else who knew me back then, would tell you that I was on a single-minded path towards a career as a Hillel rabbi.
Because it was my own vibrant experience at Hillel as a student that made me want to become a rabbi in the first place.

Fun fact: the first member of the Buchdahl family I ever met was not our senior rabbi but her oldest son Gabriel during his first year of college.
I loved the electricity of the academic life.
I was so fulfilled in my work with college students.
And the world of congregations felt so unfamiliar to me.
How could I leave a career path I loved for a job I never thought I wanted?

And here I am at my fourth Rosh Hashanah with this congregation, smiling everyday, not just because I have grown to love this work so much, but because I have grown so much, thanks to you.
Modeh ani lefanecha.
I am wrong before you.
And I am so grateful.

Yehuda Amichai wrote:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world…[11]

And what do we find when we dig up the world?
When we welcome being wrong?
We discover that when we embrace our mistakes with a smile, we unearth the most fertile soil in the the garden of God’s creation.
There, just beneath the surface, is a new teshuvah, a new answer, waiting to be found.

 


1 Grant, Adam. Think Again (p. 3). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Pirquei DeRabbi Eliezer Chapter 3.
3 Horn, Dara. The World to Come: A Novel . W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
4 Schulz, Kathryn. Being Wrong (p. 6). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
5 https://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong?language=en
6 Schulz, Kathryn. Being Wrong (p. 18). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Grant, Adam. Think Again (p. 4). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
8 Bava Metzia 59b.
Grant, Adam. Think Again (pp. 61-62). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
10 Ibid.
11 “From the Place Where We are Right” by Yehuda Amichai.