Our Mistakes Need Not Define Us (But Maybe They Should)

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There was a movie released this year called Official Secrets, which I haven’t seen and don’t intend to see. It stars a bunch of people I’ve never heard of and Keira Knightley, whom I’ve heard of but never seen anything she was in. (IMDB says she was in The Phantom Menace. I did see that but Knightley was 12 and not yet famous.) So why am I writing about this? Because of the movie’s plot.

Official Secrets tells the story Katharine Gun, a British translator, who is portrayed in the film by Knightley. In 2003, Gun leaked a top-secret memo to the British newspaper the Observer about a spy operation ordered by the NSA to determine the position of six UN delegates on the proposed invasion of Iraq.

But it’s not Gun whose story concerns me today. It’s Nicole Mowbray (portrayed in the film by someone named Hanako Footman).

At the time of Gun’s whistleblowing, Mowbray was working at the Observer in a junior position. In between tasks like booking flights for foreign correspondents and taking care of visas, she was given the hard copy of an email to type into the computer system. “I wasn’t given any other information,” Mowbray recounted. “Their only instruction: ‘Don’t make any mistakes.’” A few days later, this leaked email was the Observer’s top story, and international news.

Here’s the problem: Mowbray “corrected” the memo’s spellings from American English to British English as was her standard operating procedure. The result was that this threw the memo’s authenticity into question. After all, if it actually originated in the US, why would it say things like “recognise,” “emphasise” and “favourable?” There was certainly basis for people to suspect that the email was a fabrication. Mowbray had not only jeopardized Gun’s actions, she had inadvertently created “something of an international incident.”

Happily, Mowbray was not dismissed despite the magnitude of her error’s repercussions. “Somehow, I managed to put the disaster behind me,” she wrote. “The senior editors forgave me, and I remained on the foreign desk for three years.” All’s well that end’s well, right? Eh, not quite.

Here we are, 16 years later. Imagine how Mowbray must have felt upon discovering that not only were they making a feature film of Gun’s story but that her own faux pas was to be included. According to Mowbray, the revelation caused her to experience some sleepless nights, and the movie’s ultimate release didn’t exactly help matters. “I knew it would be hard to watch my mistake unfold, but when it came, it felt like being punched in the throat. I felt the shame all over again….”

How relatable is Mowbray’s story? While most of us probably haven’t caused an international incident, we’ve all made mistakes. We’ve intentionally done things that we regret and would never do again. It might have been in high school, in college, or yesterday, but our errors, and our errors in judgment, are always waiting for us, ready to embarrass us all over again. Most of our mistakes and indiscretions are not summer blockbuster-worthy but there’s always the possibility of running into an old friend who will open the conversation with, “Hey, remember that time when you…?”

All this puts me in mind of the Biblical Achan. In Joshua chapter 7, the Jews were easily defeated by the much smaller army of Ai. God informed Joshua that it was because Achan ben Karmi of the Tribe of Judah looted consecrated property from the conquest of Jericho. This caused God’s presence to depart from the army of Israel, resulting in 36 needless deaths. When confronted, Achan confessed not only to looting from the spoils of Jericho but also to having done so in battle during the time of Moses. The Talmud in Sanhedrin (43b-44a) tells us that, despite his actions, Achan secured a place for himself in the Next World through his confession.

“But,” I hear you protest, “Achan was still executed for his crimes!” That is true but that’s because our actions have consequences. We can change our actions going forward but we can’t change the past. We can do teshuvah, we can square things with God and with our fellow man, but we can’t scrub our mistakes from human memory (or from social media). The possibility of embarrassment for indiscretions, youthful or otherwise, persists. But that doesn’t have to define us.

In fact, our mistakes can prove useful. As Mowbray wrote, “(W)hile I wouldn’t recommend carrying the burden of a catastrophic (error)… through one’s career, it did provide a salutary lesson in attention to detail.” We can learn from our mistakes. We can take the lessons of who we were and use them to help define who we want to be. The Talmud teaches us (Yoma 86b) that when one repents from fear of sin, his sins are transformed into errors but if one repents from love of God, his sins are transformed into mitzvos. We can simply mitigate our misdeeds (which is already a pretty good deal!) but we also have the potential to turn them into full-blown merits (which is an unbelievable opportunity!).

We’ve all made mistakes and we’ve all committed misdeeds. The question is, what do we do next? We can continue to beat ourselves up and wallow in our shame but that doesn’t do anyone any good. We can move forward with our lives and hope that others don’t dredge up the past too often (which is probably what most of us do). Or we can embrace the lessons learned from our missteps and use them to define who we’re going to be moving forward.

How we proceed is up to us.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.