Letting People Mess Up

Letting People Mess Up

The other day, my daughter announced that she would be making her own lunch. Apparently the way students were called up from their tables in the lunchroom only left her 5 minutes to actually eat. The next morning, I dutifully woke her up 15 minutes early, reminding her that if she wanted lunch, she would need to get up and make it. She chose not to make it, and I think again she had only 5 minutes left to eat. In my view not a great choice, but her choice.

Patience sometimes means letting people do things in the way we would not have chosen, or even mess up.

When Moses had been on Mt Sinai 40 days and still had not returned, the Israelites made the very bad choice to make an idol, the Golden Calf. The next day, they held a festival, and offered sacrifices to the Calf. This was a terrible sin—to this day, tefillin have small bits of calf hair sticking out in memory of the Golden Calf. On that day, Gold told Moses his new plan to destroy the Israelites, and Moses begged for mercy.

Why did God wait a day? Why didn’t God tell Moses the previous day, “you’d better check out what’s going on downstairs—Aaron could use your help”?

A central theme of God’s “13 attributes of mercy,” which we recite on the High Holy Days (Adonai, Adonai, El rahum vehanun…), is God’s patience: “ereh apayim”-deeply patient. Patience means that God waits for us to improve, even after we mess up. Patience can mean letting people make mistakes. God gives us a chance to mess up and change, and also a chance to mess up and learn a lesson.

Part of patience is letting other people mess up, offering gentle guidance which may be ignored, and being there to support them when they are ready to improve.