G’mar chatima tovah, may each of you be inscribed in the book of good deeds; and for those able I want to wish you a tzom kal, a meaningful and easy fast.
Throughout these High Holidays, your rabbis have used thousands upon thousands of words in Hebrew and English, melodies and musical arrangements, all with the goal of conveying the one, simple message of the High Holiday season: reflect upon ways we have made mistakes, ask for forgiveness, and change ourselves for the better in the year ahead.
Put another way, what are our regrets? Perhaps we regret how we acted toward a loved one, we regret that we did this instead of that, we regret how we responded when life threw us a curveball. When we regret something, we admit our faults and feel remorseful for both the things we have done and opportunities we may have missed.
Our greater society, however, takes a different approach. How often have we heard the phrase, “No regrets.” It’s a statement so powerful and embedded into our culture that there are off-shoot slogans that have become colloquial: YOLO – you only live once, “If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.” or “I never look back, only forward”. And there are those who even tattoo themselves with the words “No regrets,” although for some, there’s a fascinating irony in how their tattoo artist misspells “regrets” (display picture of botched “No regrets” tattoo). My favorite take on regrets came from the funeral I did a few years ago for a man who was 100 years old. Shortly before he died, a newspaper interviewed him and asked if he had any regrets. “Yes, of course I have had some regrets along the way, but the good thing about living to 100 is you forget what they were!”
What is behind this mantra of “no regrets?” Why has it become so pervasive? I believe it is because of a broader issue: we don’t like talking about things that make us feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, or even shameful. Brene Brown taught in a Facebook post from 2018: “‘No regrets’ doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living without reflection. To live without regret,” she continues, “is to believe you have nothing to learn, no amends to make, and no opportunity to be braver with your life.” Discussing regrets takes incredible humility and strength of ego, it takes a willingness to admit we were wrong, it takes the strength that enables courageous vulnerability, all things which are rather counter-cultural, but incredibly Jewish, human, and Divine.
At the end of parshat Bereshit, the beginning of our story that starts with the creation of the world and everything on it, God reflects on “how great was the wickedness of human beings in the earth, that the direction of their thoughts was nothing but wicked all the time, the Eternal regretted having made human beings on earth, and was heartsick.” (Gen. 6:5-6) God considers the past, admits fault, and feels regret and sorrow for those mistakes. But let’s consider the word used here for regret: (display) וַיִּנָּחֶם. It’s root, nun-chet-mem, means to console and have compassion for others. It should come as no surprise, then, that Noah finds favor in God’s sight, as his name itself, made of the same root letters, means “consolation.” And later in Torah, when God wants to annihilate the Israelites for the Golden Calf, Moses convinces God to reconsider, (display) “וַיִּנָּחֶם Adonai… renounced, reversed, the punishment God had planned to bring upon the people.” Same word from the earlier story, but here it means God’s mind had been changed. In other words, admitting our regrets can lead us to shift our course and see things in a different way, and hopefully, eventually, bring us wholeness and comfort.
No one admits mistakes because it’s fun. We reflect on our regret to release the pressure on our souls, to comfort ourselves and those we love with humility. And if we happen to be on the receiving end of someone’s expression of regret, we can recognize their bravery by responding with comfort, grace, and compassion, which is exactly what we ask from God when we offer Avinu Malkeinu, which we will do after this sermon. We say, “Avinu Malkeinu, answer us with comfort, for we have many regrets. Help us through charitable acts and loving-kindness.”
Rabbi Aaron Alexander of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC writes, “This is the time of the year when we remember, especially, that we are far from perfect–that our actions, or inactions— deliberate or unintentional—have caused others, or ourselves, pain and heartache. And, this is the time of year that affirms: it doesn’t have to remain this way.”
During the High Holiday season, we face our regrets head-on, learn from them, and grow from them. Judaism says we should not hide from our regrets, even when our mistakes are from many years past. How often have you thought about a loved one and thought, “I wish I could have done more, been there more, given more, hugged more, said more”?
When I was younger, I thought I might want to be a lawyer. My grandfather, who we called Papa Mike, had been a lawyer and in the spring of 2000, he called me up and said, “we should get lunch sometime, just the two of us, and talk about the law.” But in the whirlwind that is 8th grade, I never followed through. And then, that summer, I was awakened one morning by the camp director telling me my parents were on the phone. Papa Mike had died. And we would never be able to get lunch sometime, just the two of us, and talk about the law.
I regret not taking him up on his offer. Though, it is also worth remembering that having regrets also does not mean that we always get it right the next time the situation presents itself. I still misplace priorities, and I still regret it when I do. And, to amplify what Rabbi Nevarez taught last night, “If we continued to measure ourselves against a state of perfection, we would never escape our own inadequacies or deficiencies, [leaving us] eternally wounded.” The difference between having regrets and living in regret is determining whether our pain and reflection can be productive and encourage us to change our ways, or whether it sends us spiraling, striving for perfection we know we can never truly attain.
Yom Kippur itself offers us a way of visualizing our limited time of doing teshuvah, of righting our wrongs, beginning on Kol Nidrei. Rabbi Richard Levy z”l taught that the Hebrew word we use for our ark, Aron, is used in rabbinic literature in the context of the Holy Ark, as in the Aron Hakodesh found in the Temple in Jerusalem and synagogues today, a good and learned person’s soul can be an Aron, but Aron can also mean a coffin. So when we take the Torahs out of the ark during Kol Nidrei, we are meant to literally be looking at our own mortality in the face, our own empty coffin. We are meant to consider what regrets we have in life as we face the grave. Then, at Neilah, when we also stand before the open ark, it is filled with Torah scrolls, Eitz Chayim, the tree of life. On Yom Kippur, we see our mortality and reflect on what life brings us and how we respond to life.
Each holiday season we reflect on our regrets. But they are not meant to hold us down. Judaism teaches that it is okay to have regrets; working with them, rather than letting them work us. Indeed, just as the Aron is filled with life, Torah, and the potential to rise again, the High Holidays are about moving on from regrets, rather than holding on to them, as we ritualize with Tashlich. When we let go of the bread, we also let go and release the hurt, the emotional weight, the regrets. In letting go, we are made whole, we are at peace, we achieve shalom.
In the days of awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we have the opportunity to make amends with three groups – with others, with ourselves, and with God. But Judaism also allows us to let go of regrets with an often forgotten group – those who have died. The Kever Avot ritual, which is done between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, invites us to visit the graves of our loved ones, as we ask for and offer forgiveness of those who we can no longer ask in person.
At the conclusion of Kol Nidrei, we quote the book of Numbers: “Vayomer Adonai: Salachti kid’varecha – And God responded: ‘I forgive, as you have asked.’” (Num. 14:20) God understands that we have regrets, and God forgives us, even in the presence of our own words. It is as if God says to us, “I know what you want to do. I know what you’re capable of doing. And I forgive you, even of the smallest vows, even of the smallest regrets.”
With this understanding of the role of regret in this season, we can ask ourselves: “How do we have regrets without letting them consume our lives? Greg McKeown, author of “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” offers this frame: “Be present right now to what’s important right now.” Noted clinical psychologist Dr. Darlene Mininni also offers: “Instead of criticizing yourself for “that stupid thing I did,” remember that you probably did the best you could with the information and perspective you had at the time.”
With all of this in mind, I’d like to suggest a nuance to “no regrets” – instead, let’s try saying: “I’m at peace with my regrets.” It’s okay to have regrets. And when we have regret, let’s also have some self-compassion and self-forgiveness, with the same nechama God and Noah offer. Regrets do not make us weak, but even more importantly, regrets do not take anything away from our life’s experiences. Poet David Whyte teaches, “To regret fully is to appreciate how high the stakes are in an average human life. Fully experienced, regret turns our eyes, attentive and alert, to a future, possibly lived better than our past.” Put another way, “Our past informs our future,” and reflecting on our regrets should not override the full spectrum of emotions we glean from our past.
In this afternoon’s Contemporary Confessions service, we will offer a new prayer titled “Words of Consolation.” In it, Andy Mayer, our incredible accompanist and composer, writes, “I pray that my children forgive themselves for the things they regret, but learn with intention from the lessons of their lives.”
Regret allows us to return to a situation with a new perspective, rejoice in our growth and appreciate our lived experiences, and renew our ability to create a better world for ourselves and our community.
As we go forward from this Yom Tov, my prayer for all of us is that we can be brave, we can be courageous, we can be vulnerable, and we can find ourselves saying, “Yes, regrets!”