Travolta, Pope Francis and your rabbi: A lesson in mistakes

What do the Pope, John Travolta and your rabbi have in common? They all have problems getting names and words out these days!

That sounds like a joke, but this week our commonality is more than a punch line.

For those that have been living under a pop-culture rock, John Travolta introduced Idina Menzel, an award winning singer-songwriter at the 2014 Oscar award show. Travolta, for some reason, could not say her name properly and really fowled the proper enunciation. As a result, Travolta has been the target of countless jokes and jibes. There is even an app today that can mess up your name exactly as John Travolta would mess it up, were he to announce you at the Oscars! Poor guy!

At Wednesday’s mass in St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis was offering his weekly homily and blessings to those that gathered from near and far. During his scripted remarks, he accidentally said a word that, well, translates to one of my favorite expletives. Outside of Italy we call it the “F” bomb. The Pope quickly realized his misspoken word, paused, and then corrected himself and continued with his verses of inspiration. Some in the audience did not catch it at all. Others gasped. Some giggled. Pope Francis apologized for his misspoken word and claimed what all seem to know and equally seem to forget; we are all human.

This past Saturday night, at the Temple Emanu-El of NJ annual dinner dance, while making remarks to one of the honoree couples, the senior rabbi mistakenly conjoined the names of their two children into one. He blamed it on aging but truth be told, he just had a brain synapse; one of those scary and ever-growing-more common-moments when he saw himself becoming his parents who always called him by all of his brothers’ names before they said his own.

In biblical times Travolta, Pope Francis and the rabbi would be in line together outside the Temple with a young goat in hand as that was the common offering for leaders in a community that committed a sin unintentionally. Interestingly, we learn that the only sin offerings that are given are for acts done without intention to do wrong. If one hurt another or did an act intentionally, the punishment would be excision.

There are two types of sins; acts of omission and acts of commission. Or, in other words, what the Talmud calls acts that are purely accidental versus pre-meditated acts; Shogaig versus Mayzeed.

Today, we have no animal sacrifices to offer for mistakes or mispronunciations. Instead, we have words and actions to demonstrate our sorrow and we have the consideration of the community to offer forgiveness.

However, the real onus in place of the Temple’s sacrificial system is on the community. If we know the act was accidental, do we really need goats and lambs and turtle doves to show remorse? Isn’t communal understanding enough? We know our intentionality. Others can interpret it through our actions.

Ironically, with camera phones and recording devices now in our pockets, mistakes are captured and become more viral than ever. As a voyeuristic, social media based society, more viewers leads to greater embarrassment and shame. Is that fair? Should we really hold celebrities and leaders to higher standards for common mistakes?

I have never met John Travolta nor Pope Francis but I imagine they never intended to misspeak. I know the New Jersey rabbi didn’t. While on wildly different scales, they are all public figures that are held to different standards but many times, unfairly. All of us, you too, are only human. My dad would say, “We all put our pants on one leg at a time.” While we are responsible for the choices we make and the words that come out of our mouths, perfection can only be expected in one Power, and even that One, at times, seems less than perfect.

The best lesson to glean from the timely conflation of sacrifices and these misspoken words are that the offender can say sorry, but the community must show in word and deed a sincere sense of understanding for a mistake made. Otherwise, we expect the un-expectable and are only left with disappointments. That is a reality that none could enjoy!

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