Homer Nods: Naming Our Mistakes

July 11, 2017

“Today I recount my failings” – Genesis 41:9

I’d like to share a recent incident in which I was involved. It’s a little embarrassing but I think the moral of the story makes it all worthwhile.

I don’t write articles like this only for OU Life; my content appears on a few sites. These sites have different audiences and different raisons d’être, so the content and style of what I submit may vary depending on the site to which I am submitting a particular piece. I may write something with one site in mind and, if they can’t use it for whatever reason, offer it to another site. This may require some stylistic changes.

This happened recently. I wrote about an article I had read and the author of that article featured prominently in the piece. The finished piece wasn’t of interest to site where I first offered it, so I offered it to another site. They were interested in it but they wanted me to change the focus. Specifically, they wanted it to be more about the topic of the article and not so much about the individuals involved, so I had to edit it.

I did a poor job. Instead of rewriting, I pretty much changed the author’s name, which had appeared half a dozen times in the original draft, to “the author.” But I went too far and I changed every instance of it, not mentioning her name even once. Worse, I kept a few direct quotes, attributing them to the generic “author.”

I never would have written it this way in the first place but my head wasn’t in the game. Since the piece had been rejected once, I was too wrapped up in making it not about the players. I had blinders on; I was focusing so intently on A that I overlooked B.

The article I wrote was accepted and published. It was generally well-received but a few commenters pointed out this omission. (I hesitate to call it a “glaring omission” because it wasn’t the kind of thing that most readers would even notice. But for those who know the original author and read her piece, it was indeed glaring.) I quickly skimmed the article, realized the gaffe, and shot an email to the editor of the site where my piece appeared. She had also seen the comments and realized that there had been a breakdown in communication between us, and was already correcting the oversight. My article was corrected and I reached out to the author of the original piece apologizing for the initial slight. (She was very gracious about it.)

This wasn’t just a matter of politeness or journalistic standards, it’s actually an important Jewish principle. The Talmud in Megillah (15a) tells us that one who repeats something in the name of its originator brings redemption to the world. This is based on Esther 2:22, in which “Queen Esther told the king (about the assassination plot) in the name of Mordechai.” Because Esther included Mordechai’s name in the report, the king became indebted to Mordechai, he realized he hadn’t rewarded him, and he had Haman lead Mordechai on horseback through the city streets. This was the great reversal leading to Haman’s downfall.

There’s a quote I love, which I use when someone catches me in an error. “Aliquando bonus dormitat Homerus” – “sometimes good Homer nods.” (This is actually a paraphrase of a quote from Horace, “Indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus” – “I get annoyed when the great Homer is drowsy.”) The meaning is clear: Homer – the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey – is generally acknowledged as a pretty smart cookie. But being a pretty smart cookie doesn’t make one infallible. We all make mistakes. If you catch me (or anyone else) in an error, that doesn’t make us bad, stupid or malicious. It makes us human.

We all make mistakes. The question is, what do we do when these mistakes are pointed out to us? Human nature is to double down in a misguided attempt to “save face.” This literally goes back to the very first humans. Consider Genesis 3:11-13:

God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?”

The man replied, “It was the woman that You gave me; she gave me from the tree and I ate.”

So God said to the woman, “What did you do?” and the woman replied, “The serpent tricked me and I ate.”

There’s a lot of buck-passing going on there and not a lot of owning one’s actions. On the whole, we – the descendants of Adam and Chava – are not any better in this area (see: every Facebook thread) but we are capable of suppressing the defense urge and acknowledging our mistakes.

An unsung hero of the Talmud is Nachman Ha’Amsuni. The Talmud in Kiddushin 57a relates how Nachman Ha’Amsuni expounded every occurrence in the Torah of the word “es,” a particle that serves a grammatical purpose but has no intrinsic meaning. When he came to a particular verse, he realized that his premise was incorrect and he retracted all of his previous interpretations. His students urged him not to retract because he had taught many valuable lessons but Nachman Ha’Amsuni wouldn’t hear of it. He famously stated, “Just as I was rewarded for expounding these verses in the first place, so will I be rewarded for retracting them.”

It’s okay to make mistakes. We all do it. It’s why pencils have erasers, keyboards have backspace keys and everybody has to buy auto insurance. The question is how we deal with our mistakes. Do we use them as a learning opportunity so that we can do better next time or do we dig our heels in and firmly entrench ourselves in our ways? The former approach satisfies our human desire to always be right and to “win.” Only the latter approach has the potential to lead to personal growth and, hopefully, to encourage peace between people.