Yom Kippur is a time of reconciliation. It is not just a day of atonement, but also, and perhaps more important, a day of at-one-ment. We are encouraged to reconcile our differences with the members of our community that we may have wronged. We turn, then, to Hashem, and seek to realign ourselves with the Divine.
Both of these endeavors at healing may be demanding processes. Really apologizing to a neighbor, making things right, is no easy task. As necessary as it may be, it may be embarrassing, even humiliating. And getting right with G-d may involve some truly deep introspection and searing honesty. Just take a moment to admit to yourself one of your deepest secrets, then imagine admitting it to someone else, and you’ll understand what I mean.
Joe Valachi, the mafia hitman, once remarked, “You can imagine my embarrassment when I killed the wrong guy.” Well no, actually, I can’t, but I do get the general idea.
But as demanding as it may be to get right with other people, and with Hashem, one thing we can say is that such tasks are at least possible. Other people can respond to our efforts. G-d can respond to our prayers.
But what about those who are no longer with us? What do we do about our sins against them? Or, for that matter, their sins against us? How can we change a relationship with someone who is not here, with us, except in a symbolic sense?
These are real issues. After all, we aren’t perfect, and neither were they. As much as we love them, and as much as they loved us, it would be rare indeed for a relationship to have been flawless. However strong the spirit of love that animated our relationship may be, pristine spirituality can only come to concrete expression in the material world, with all its rough edges and bumpy roads.
Speaking personally, I had a wonderful relationship with my parents. They loved me, and I them, with a deep and enduring love. But it was inevitable that as a child growing up, only beginning the process of developing emotional maturity, I said and did and, beyond that, thought, things that were hurtful. And at the same time, they were like all parents, learning how to be parents. I didn’t come with a how-to manual. None of us did. And as fine as they might have been—and fine they were—they had flaws just like all of us do. These did not disappear just because I came into the world.
So what are we to do? How do we apologize for being hurtful? And how do we let go of the hurts for which no apology is possible? The answer to those questions fits in perfectly with the theme of this Day of Atonement: forgiveness.
“Forgiveness means letting go of the hope for a better past. “
(Lama Surya Das, American Tibetan Buddhist master)
Forgiveness means letting go of the hope for a better past.
Think about it. We cannot change the past. We cannot make it different. To continue to insist that it should have been different, and better, is an exercise in futility. What we can do is change our attitude about the past. Once we accept that the past will not change, we can focus in on a deeper reality: it could not have been different than it was. Sure, we may wish it had been. And clearly, choices were being made when other options were available, choices that could have been hurtful, cruel, insensitive, or just plain stupid. All that notwithstanding, whatever failures there were, were failures for a reason. They could have been because of emotional sloppiness, or unrelenting time pressure, or a reflection of a deeply flawed personality, or even, in some rare cases of extreme abuse, succumbing to raw evil. But the fact that it was that way means that, given the circumstances, the full range of circumstances that brought us to that particular point, it could not have been other than it was.
When I was training in spiritual direction, I asked one of my colleagues how she was. Her response was, “I’m as good as I can be.” This was by no means an expression of conceit. What she was saying was deeper, and more poignant: At this particular moment in time, given the realities of her life, her psycho-spiritual development, her emotional state, she was precisely as good as she could be.
Did she have the potential to be something more, something better? Of course. That struggle, as I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, is what life is all about. But right then and there, for that particular moment, she had gone as far as she could go.
From this perspective, we can begin to look at the failures of those who have left this world with some degree of equanimity. And we can look at ourselves with similar graciousness. Simply put, when we were young and stupid, we were young and stupid. And when we got older, we were still stupid. Hopefully, a little less, but stupid still. This is not to imply, of course, that we can ignore the wrongs we have committed. To say, “I have no regrets,” is to reveal a sickness, a kind of willful amnesia that is a recipe for cruelty. But allowing the past to be the past allows us to focus on the present, and the possibilities it engenders.
Right now, we face choices. And someday, the choices we make will be looked upon as having been inevitable. We, too, will be seen as having been as good as we can be. This moment, each moment, is our only opportunity to choose consciously, rather than being swept along by the unconscious torrent of the past.
We can choose the direction of our relationships. It takes two to tango, obviously. We all know this. But we can at least position ourselves in such a way that we offer positive and creative energy to enhance, and if necessary, repair our relationships. Is there someone we aren’t talking to? Is there someone who needs to know the love we have for them? Is there something important that our ego, or our pride, or our insecurity, has prevented us from saying or doing?
Now is the time.
We can choose the direction of our Jewish lives. At the Kadimah Encampment Ruth-Ann and I attended recently, we saw a skit that could be called “the ghost of grandchildren future.” In the skit, a person dreams of their grandchildren coming across a box of Jewish items—a kippah, tallit, tfillin, siddur—and having no idea what these things are. If that isn’t the future you envision, if that isn’t the future you want, now is the time to change it. Otherwise, it will turn out to have been inevitable.
Now is the time.
We can change the nature of the world we live in. I don’t think I’m being particularly partisan in stating that virtually everyone in this room thinks the world is currently a mess. We can choose to do something about it. Or not. Our descendants (I’m being optimistic here, assuming there will be descendants), our descendants will look back at our choices, whatever they are, as inevitable. But at this particular moment, all is still possible for us. Will we seek to make a difference, or will we instead choose indifference to the challenges the human community is facing?
Now is the time.
To break out of our lethargy is not easy. There is a lot of emotional inertia that keeps us stuck where we are. And there’s something else as well. Making conscious choices carries with it the risk of conscious failures. But unlike moonshots, where “failure is not an option,” in human affairs failure is not merely an option. Failure is inevitable. We are, after all, human, and only hint at the divine within us. Given enough time, we’ll screw up. Call it Wolkoff’s law.
And the gift we can give each other is to create a society, indeed, a home, where such failure is accepted without condescension and without conceited judgment. In a word, with love. As Bren Brown once said, “Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging have the courage to be imperfect.”
That kind of courage is in mighty short supply.
Now is the time to find it. Now is the time. And by loving each other that much more, we can help each other to do so.
And then, on this Day of Atonement, after we attempt to heal the wounds that still can be healed, and forgive the ones that cannot, we can shift our focus away from the past. If we can accept our fallibility with courage, then we can strive wholeheartedly to be the best we can be for our loved ones, for our Jewish community, for our world, and, ultimately, for ourselves.
Ken yehi ratzon. Amen.