Not Your Fault

Do you know the sinking feeling that comes when you try to discourage someone from doing something wrong, but it backfires and actually convinces them to do it? Suppose your son is hanging out with the wrong crowd, and in trying to explain why these friends are a bad influence, you say something that angers him and he joins them to spite you.

Suppose your friend is considering infidelity, and you argue against it by touting the values of a devoted marriage. Unbeknownst to you, you end up highlighting something that your friend has always resented about her spouse, and it becomes her excuse for infidelity.

You feel guilty and blame yourself.

You tell yourself that it’s as if you encouraged your son to join the gang or your friend to betray her spouse. You tell yourself these things because that is what your son or friend keeps telling you. But guess what—they are wrong.

The fact is, you didn’t commit the sin, they did. It is only natural for you to blame yourself, but remember that they probably would have committed their sin with or without you. If you hadn’t provided the excuse, they would have found another way to justify it, or would have done it regardless.

So don’t feel guilty. You meant well, and that in itself deserves credit.

I will take it one step further. Not only were your words not the catalyst for their sins, your words will one day have a positive effect. They will become the catalyst for their regret. Our sages taught that when we make a sincere effort for a good cause, we can rest assured that our efforts will bear fruit.

Aaron and the Golden Calf

We learn this from the story of Aaron and the Golden Calf. When rabble-rousers approached Aaron with the demand for an idol to replace Moses, he invited them to bring their gold. His intentions were noble. He didn’t believe the people would part with their gold. But his plans backfired when the people delivered the gold. Then Aaron built a fire, hoping to melt the gold, but a calf pranced out of the fire.

Aaron insisted that as High Priest, only he could build an altar for the calf. Aaron tarried all night, hoping and praying that Moses would return before the altar was complete. Yet the altar was finished before dawn. By the time Moses returned from Sinai, the pagan celebrations were in full swing.

Aaron couldn’t forgive himself for enabling the sin. Though his intentions were pure, his efforts had backfired, and he felt responsible.

How surprised Aaron was several months later when Moses declared that G‑d had forgiven the sin and invited the nation to build a Tabernacle, and that Aaron would be High Priest!

Aaron was certain that Moses was mistaken. How could he have been granted such an honor? When the inauguration day arrived, Aaron was meant to offer his first sacrifice, but he hesitated, doubting that his efforts would please G‑d. Moses proclaimed, “This is G‑d’s commandment, perform it and G‑d will reveal His glory. Approach the altar, carry out your sin offering and burnt offering, and you will atone for yourself and for the nation.”1

Our sages explain that Aaron saw the image of a bull standing atop the altar and was both afraid and ashamed. Moses said to him, “Aaron, why are you afraid? You were chosen for this.”2

A careful reading will yield a question. Aaron was afraid and ashamed, yet Moses only addressed his fear. He told Aaron not to be afraid because G‑d chose him to be High Priest. Why didn’t Moses address Aaron’s shame?

Perhaps he did. The fear is clearly addressed by the words “why are you afraid,” and perhaps the shame is addressed by the words “you were chosen for this.” Moses was saying, “Aaron, don’t be ashamed about your role in the sin of the Golden Calf. It was precisely because of that role that you were chosen. You shielded the nation from greater spiritual harm. You didn’t succeed in preventing the sin entirely, but that isn’t your fault. They were dead-set on committing the sin. But if not for your actions, they might have begun their celebrations much earlier, and by the time I arrived, the damage would have been irreparable.

“G‑d consented to forgive the Jews and invite them to build His Tabernacle because you managed to contain their sin. G‑d is not mad at you. On the contrary, He is proud of you. He appointed you High Priest to reward you.”

Don’t Blame Yourself

Aaron blamed himself for the sin of the Jews because his efforts backfired and failed to stop them. Further, he believed that his actions triggered the sin. In truth, Aaron was not held to task for the sins of the people and, on the contrary, was rewarded for his role since his efforts did in fact succeed in subtle ways—they made it possible for G‑d to forgive the people.3

So when you struggle to help another make the right choice and he or she ends up making the wrong one, don’t blame yourself. If your words were sincere, they are sure to have a positive impact in the long term. For when words come from the heart, sooner or later, they will enter the heart of the other.