by Rabbi Gila Caine
(Edmonton) – Last week my son had the misfortune of totally restarting his game on Nintendo. To clarify, in the mind of a seven-year-old, this experience is in the same order of magnitude as deleting your thesis or realizing that your taxes must be redone, on your own, by yourself. He cried. And when he finished crying, he looked at me and said, “I wish I could just go back in time and not press on that button.”
I told him, “You know, what you are feeling now is regret.” Oddly enough, this regretful event took place only a day after Rosh Chodesh Elul – a perfect way to begin the month of looking back at the past year and counting all the buttons we wish we hadn’t pressed.
I don’t want to look at the reasons for our regrets, but rather at our capacity to feel regret and at our ability to believe other people when they say sorry. Because if there is anything I find reprehensible in popular culture today, it is not only the acts of public shaming, but also the absolute denial of forgiveness – and of course both things are connected. Our public spheres have become Roman circuses into which we throw the condemned or unfortunate, and cheer at the exotic ways in which blood sacrifice is drawn.
This is absolutely not what teshuva (repentance) is about, and most definitely not a space in which to explore regret. The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers us a wonderful understanding of teshuvah:
Our past does not determine our future. We can change. We can act differently next time than last. If anything, our future determines our past…. Our teshuva and God’s forgiveness together mean that we are not prisoners of the past…. In Judaism, sin is what we do, not who we are. (Rabbi J. Sacks, Ceremony & Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays. Maggid Books, 2017, p. 20)
What a wonderful mantra to take with us into the new year – sin is what we do, not who we are. Listen to the way it echoes the morning prayer: “God, the soul you have given me is pure.” The tricky bit is that when we acknowledge that our given soul, our neshama, is pure, we are accepting at that very moment that the souls of our friends and enemies are pure as well.
So, my teshuva is real teshuva, but potentially so is the regret and return of those around me – the people I agree with on politics as well as those I don’t, my family but also those “friends” I wish I never had to meet again. All around me are people carrying huge and tiny regrets, asking themselves “how do we cleanse ourselves of this burden? How do we do teshuva?”
While I don’t know how YOU can do teshuva (and honestly I am still trying to figure it out for myself), there is one beautiful piece of Torah from the writings of the Imrei Emes (Reb Avraham Mordechai Alter, the fourth Gerrer Rebbe), which helped me find a useful direction. About the verse “I have been blameless before Him, I kept myself from my sin…” (2 Samuel, 22:24) he wrote that each of us is created to fix something in this world, and that our Yetzer Harah (our inclination to do bad) tries its best to make us fail specifically at this one thing.
In the words “I kept myself from my sin,” we ask not to fail in that place where we are prone to sin, which in truth is the exact same spot where we were meant to bring tikkun (healing) to the world. This very spot where we sin and heal is the sacred place where we hold onto life and where we can potentially bring our full passion and commitment.
Sometimes we misinterpret the direction our commitment is flowing, and instead of bringing good into the world, we bring shame and pain and sadness. But, by carefully reading our regrets and realizing our sins, hopefully we can discover what we are here to mend. This is not only the first step of teshuva, but also a great incentive towards researching our past year(s), knowing that by doing teshuva, we are fulfilling our potential on this earth. This is true of ourselves, but also of those around us.
It is therefore imperative that we believe people when they do teshuva. By allowing for compassionate regret and teshuva, we are enabling everyone to go on and do the real work for which we were brought into this world.
As for my son, he worked hard at regaining all his magical items in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and has achieved much glory, strange pieces of armour, and weird pets in his game. Incidentally, awakening, or as we call it in Hebrew, Hit’orerut, is another wonderful subject for the High Holidays, but we’ll talk about that at shul in the coming weeks.
May you, with all your family and friends, have a year filled with good health and blessings. Shana tova.
Rabbi Gila Caine is the spiritual leader at Temple Beth Ora, Edmonton’s Reform Jewish Congregation.