By Rabbi Mendy Wolf
How many times do we hear people say that? What’s it supposed to mean? Is it a cop-out? Does being human entitle one to make mistakes?
The media is constantly full of quotes from politicians and celebrities, many of which are then retracted as “slips”. After just about any controversial statement, one can expect something like “I didn’t mean that”; “It came out wrong”; or “I didn’t realize my speechwriter put that in”. Underlying all those apologies is a basic communication: I’m human. It happens. It’s not my fault.
But how often do you hear a businessman say, “I need to cancel the contract. It was a mistake; I don’t know how I ended up signing it”?
You’re probably laughing. But really, why is not socially acceptable to change one’s mind on a contract? If public officials are human, so are businessmen! What’s the difference?
There is no difference, really. But realistically, although society tends to tolerate verbal blunders in general, a word in business is recognized as absolute. You may not have meant it, but you said it, and once you’ve signed the dotted line, the deal’s done. So you won’t hear “I take that back” in the office, because it won’t get anyone very far. And for that reason, a businessman is probably less likely to “slip” in the first place. He knows his words count, and his money is at stake.
This week’s Parsha instructs us, “When you build a new house, you must make a guard-rail for your roof – and you shall not allow blood to be spilled in your house…”
Although the Torah seems to be explaining the rationale for the commandment to build fences, the Commentators note that the wording implies more. Make a guard-rail for your roof, the verse is telling us, and thus, you will not be responsible for innocent blood spilled on your property. Hence, one who neglects to protect his roof is held culpable in the case of an accident: he should have prevented it.
Mistakes can usually be blamed on outside factors, other people, or, when all else fails, on our “humanity.” But as the saying goes, “a good reason isn’t necessarily a good excuse.” Ultimately, a person is capable of preventing problematic situations with some foresight and caring.
Thus, the true mark of humanity is not the capacity to err; rather, it is the power to take responsibility for the outcome of one’s actions and plan ahead. The words “I’m human” should really imply, “I should have been more careful.”
We spend our lives building – forging relationships, creating families, establishing careers and developing reputations. Remember to build fences, guard rails to protect the people and values you care about. Nip issues in the bud before they start by planning ahead. Think of yourself as a businessman, and take your words and actions seriously. They count big time.
And when you do end up in an uncomfortable situation – it happens to all of us – resist the temptation to shift blame. Rather than mumble a dismissive apology, stand up and say, “I’m sorry, I should have known better. After all, I am human.”
Rabbi Mendy Wolf is the educational director for the Institute of American & Talmudic Law, and the director for Project Life, an organization which promotes Jewish values throughout the business community in NYC. R’ Mendy is a sought after teacher and lecturer and resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and family. Contact Rabbi Mendy to book him to speak or with feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.