William Hamilton

I was wrong. You were right.

It’s delicious. Hearing someone say, ‘I’m sorry. I was wrong. You were right.’ If you’re like me, you spend a lot of life longing to hear these words. Yet, they are so elusive. So rare. Why?

Turns out that even when faced with dramatic failure of a belief or some idea, most people would rather attribute such undisputable failure to a single factor or misstep. If only the candidate had spent more time campaigning in a certain State. If only the peace-promoting withdrawal from a currently-hostile region had been done more gradually. 

A mind made-up is a hard thing to change. Ask yourself, when was the last time you changed yours? 

This week’s portion of Torah presents a case-study on the matter. A contrite Pharaoh tells Moses and Aaron in the midst of the seventh plague, “I stand guilty this time. Your God is right, and I and my people are wrong” (Ex. 9:27). Of course, as soon as the hail stops, Pharaoh has a change of heart that reinstates more punishments for his refusal to free the slaves. Contrition passes as soon as the danger does. 

But still, this does not mean that the best we can hope for is meager. Just because you may never get to hear what you deserve to hear from somebody does not mean you end up with nothing. 

This is because they can still offer you something else. When you perceive that somebody is trying to appreciate your sincerity, even if they don’t share your view, perhaps especially if they don’t, then they may be saying: “I know you’re not acting in bad-faith (or thinking with it).” It gets even better when they put some mental elbow-grease into relating to your feelings for your view, precisely because they realize how intense theirs are for their view. The deeper their effort, the more treasured it is (Pirke Avot 5:26). This isn’t nothing. Indeed it can prove to be quite dear. 

True, you may never get to hear, “You were right. I was wrong.” But the Torah’s lesson is that even if you did, it might prove fleeting. Alternatively, a more lasting and endearing response finds a meeting point between your anguish and somebody else’s effort to affirm that your heart’s in the right place. 

As a special friend of mine likes to say about belief in people, It’s not that we’re only human. It’s that we’re fully human. May you find, in 2024, precious moments when your humanness feels fully heard.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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