My barber in Queens is from Japan. Jun is about forty years old, razor thin, and he has a marked accent as he came over from Japan only a few years ago. While Jun cuts my hair, we have the most interesting conversations about fishing, a passion that we both share, and about religion. This past week as I sat in the barber's chair he told me a story.
Jun was standing in the shop as a woman walked by outside with her young daughter. The girl was eating french fries from a box. She accidentally dropped the fries on the ground. They made a big mess, french fries and ketchup everywhere, right in the middle of the sidewalk. The girl reached down to pick up the fries, but then the mom scolded her, saying: “Those fries are dirty, don’t touch them. There are other people whose job it is to clean this up.” The girl stood up, and the mother and daughter kept walking, leaving the mess for somebody else.
My barber was a bit shocked by the actions of the mother. He wanted to go outside and confront her, but he kept his objections to himself. Later, Jun told this story to a friend of his, who responded this way: “Well, sure the mother should have picked up the fries. But by leaving the mess, she created a job for the person who is cleaning it up.” Perhaps we have found the solution to the country’s economic problems: we all act unethically and hire other people to have the job of cleaning up our messes.
As my barber told me the story of the mother, daughter and the french fries, he made the following comment: “Maybe I am just too strict. Maybe I expect too much from people. But I still do not understand how that mother could set such a poor example for her daughter.”
Even though it was a small act, leaving those french fries on the ground for someone else to pick up was a way of evading responsibility. When we accidentally drop a box of french fries, or purposely harm others at work or at home, we are all very good at finding ways to deny, blame or otherwise evade responsibility for our errors. My barber described himself as strict in expecting the mother and daughter to do better. Judaism sides with my barber on this one, saying that we should be strict in taking responsibility for our mistakes.
I got into a fender-bender a few weeks ago. This is my confession. I am a rabbi. I have given sermons about the importance of being safe drivers and the dangers caused by aggression on the roads. Yet recently, I was impatient behind the wheel. I cut off a small truck trying to make a right turn. The metal bars on his bumper did some damage to my Honda. Since the truck was only going five miles per hour, no one was hurt and the truck was not harmed.
The driver of the truck was in his 20s, and by his accent, sounded like an immigrant from the Caribbean. I was embarrassed and I apologized. He was kind and gracious, as we waited together for the police. The next day I brought my car to the body shop. As the mechanic looked over my Civic, I said: “I was the jerk here. I cut off a truck.” He then replied: “Most people would not say that. At least you were honest.” As bad as I felt about my accident, that simple comment by the mechanic made me feel a little better. When I took responsibility for my mistake, it helped me to cope with it. As I left the auto body shop, I did wonder how many people a week admit their driving sins to the mechanic. I hoped there were more confessions than stories about what the other person did wrong.
One of the most important lessons of the Jewish High Holidays is that we must take responsibility for our mistakes. During the confessional prayers spoken on Yom Kippur, we offer up an alphabet of sins in the ashamnu prayer, from arrogance and bigotry to zeal for bad causes. We confess mistake after mistake. Surely none of us have made all of these errors, but the point of the prayer is that we have made some of them. When we see our own lives in the words of the prayer book, and see our mistakes listed among the confessional, then we have taken the first step in the process of repairing our wrongs.
There is another point that is important in taking responsibility for our mistakes. When someone confesses a wrong to us, we are obligated to treat them with kindness. The Rabbis taught that if a person asks for forgiveness three times, and we rebuff them on each occasion, now we are the one who has sinned. To take responsibility in front of another person requires courage, and makes us feel vulnerable and embarrassed. I am not saying that we have to forgive and forget. But we must hear and acknowledge when a person offers us a confession, and remember that it is not easy to admit a mistake.
Taking responsibility for our wrongs is ultimately liberating. When we think about owning up to something we did, we may initially feel guilty or embarrassed. But the act of confessing a mistake to someone else can be deeply satisfying. When I told the auto mechanic that I was the idiot who hit the truck, I felt better. I felt lighter. I could move on with my life, and try to learn a lesson from my mistake. Blame and denial may be great ways to save face. But Judaism teaches us that by confessing our mistakes, we begin to liberate ourselves from the errors, and move on towards wholeness and repair.
To read another story about Jun, my Japanese Barber: CLICK HERE