I believe our tradition encourages a periodic introspection and self-analysis to allow us to grow. Each week, the last day of the week (Shabbath) is reserved for that introspection much in the same way that Yom Kippur is reserved every year for that self-analysis. But I also believe there is a deeper lesson to be learned.
Each opportunity for self-analysis is also an opportunity for self-improvement – I take that as a truism. But something we sometimes forget is that self-analysis and self-improvement demand a measure of self-doubt. If we cannot doubt ourselves enough to question our actions, our self-analysis will be nothing more than an opportunity to solidify our actions – mistaken or not. Without self-doubt, there is no room for change; with too much self-doubt, there is no room for confidence -we need to walk the healthy middle point.
And our tradition also provides us with a manual to guide us through that process of self-improvement. In our interactions with others or even with God, we are prone to make mistakes because we're Human – and Judaism recognizes that fact and tells us that it is OK to make a mistake...insofar we learn how to fix it. After all, we learn more from our mistakes than from whatever awards we might receive in life. But how do we move from the mistake to a solid foundation for the future? Would it surprise you to know that we have Jewish a map for that too?
The first step is to recognize the mistake for what it is: a mistake. Without recognizing which of our actions were wrong, we can hardly correct them – so they will remain in the foundation of anything we wish to build on top.
The second step is to acknowledge that mistake publicly. We are supposed to ask forgiveness from everybody affected by our wrongs. By doing this we are telling those around us that yes, we know we did wrong and we're committed to fix it. Whether we receive that forgiveness or not is indeed irrelevant, since Judaism recognizes that we only control our own behavior. In this process it is the asking of forgiveness that counts. Our sages went as far as saying that it is our obligation to ask forgiveness up to three times...if by that time, the affected individuals did not forgive us we have nonetheless fulfilled our obligation. Why three times? In ancient times, repeating a commitment three times gave the commitment the legal status of a contract: asking forgiveness is indeed part of our social contract with others.
The third step is to change our behavior so we will not repeat the same mistake. This is the step that emphasizes how we learn. When we take a wrong turn, we need to go back to the fork in the road and take the other road; when we fail in our social contract by making a mistake that affects not only us, but also others, we need to right the wrong. And the only way to do it is by making sure it doesn't happen again...we cannot fix the past, but we can indeed build a better future in any relationship.
The failure in each one of these three steps is also a sign of a personality flaw: If we don't recognize our mistakes, it can indicate a great amount of pride that gets in the way of recognizing that we, too, are human. Roman generals, during their triumphal procession upon return to Rome, always had riding with them a person who whispered in their ears the words “Remember that you are mortal”.
The failure to acknowledge our mistakes publicly and asking for forgiveness shows our lack of respect for others. It sends the message that the Other is just important when it affect us – not in his/her own right, but in function of their usefulness to us. It reveals that we look at others, to a lesser or larger extent, as tools – not people.
The failure to correct our behavior reveals lack of consideration for others. If we did something wrong and we insist in behaving the same way we are basically saying: I'm always right so if you don't like it it is your problem – live with it. So it also reveals disrespect and pride as well.
Human relationships are the basic foundation of our earthly lives and the basic way in which we model our relationship with the Divine. It is the “I-Thou” relationship, as described by Buber, that gives meaning to our lives and provides the foundation for a better future.
And the past never just goes away. Whatever we have done in the past, good or bad, will remain in our record (so to speak) and affect the way others see us and the way they relate to us. Once we breach the trust of others, we cannot simply pretend it didn't happen – we need to repair that trust, because in destroying it we damaged not only the other, but also ourselves.
And what applies to individuals also applies, in a higher level of complexity, to organizations and even nations...but I'll let you do the math on that one...
Borrowing (and paraphrasing) from a different tradition: “May the Holy one grant us the wisdom to recognize our mistakes, the fortitude to acknowledge them, and the intelligence to learn from them”