Maurice A. Salth | September 13, 2013
Dedicated to SESA
In loving memory of Sandi Hoff Johnson
This summer, my cousin Sandi died. Sandi was an older cousin of mine who had overcome major challenges to live a good life with many significant triumphs, both personal and professional. I looked up to her.
In early July, she posted on her Facebook page that she had been diagnosed with cancer, and later that month she posted that her illness had worsened. And in August, she died.
I never called her. I never said, “I’m sorry you are sick,” “I admire you,” “You inspire me,” or “I love you.” I never spoke with her before she died.
And I regret this so much.
Regret happens in our lives no matter what—it comes with the mere act of existing.
The writer George Saunders told a story of one of his regrets in a commencement address that some of you may have read recently. He said:
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. … Ellen was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked,… trying, as much as possible, to disappear.
After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. … Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then – they moved.
That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing. One day she was there, next day she wasn’t. End of story.
Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about [Ellen]?
And Saunders explained: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”
Regret comes with living. It exists in many forms. What do you regret?
We often have the urge to avoid regret rather than confront it. Remorse can be rough going.
I looked online and there are 462 books available on Amazon with the words “no regrets” in the title. As though we could actually live life without regret; it’s ridiculous, it’s impossible.
Let’s look at the quintessential Jewish book, our Hebrew Bible. In it, even God regrets. Early in the Torah, God witnesses the evil and wicked behavior of humanity, and God regrets having created people. God actually wishes He could take back man and woman. Later, God regrets selecting Saul as the first Jewish king of ancient Israel. In the Talmud, our Sages teach that God also regrets allowing the Babylonian exile and other events to take place (Sukkah 52b). Regret is as inevitable as breathing; it’s true for God and it is true for us.
As Jews especially on Yom Kippur we do not shy away from asking ourselves, “What do we regret and what might we do about these regrets?” Candor in admitting and addressing our regret stretches us to be better human beings.
Start with the people you’ve lost. If you had the chance, what would you say to someone who’s already gone? Maybe they are no longer living or perhaps they are inaccessible. I know what I would say to my cousin Sandi.
A young writer, Jackie Hooper, became interested in learning about the words people wish they would have said to one another. She spoke with her 84-year-old grandfather about this. He retold to her the story of how his family had survived the Holocaust thanks to his Christian neighbors who hid them from the Nazis. He eventually escaped and made his way to America. He had always wanted to properly thank them for saving his life.
Jackie asked him to write a letter to say the things he’d wanted to say to them. This is what he wrote:
Dear Mrs. Gabriel,
The memory for what you did for me remains unchanged. I was 10 and I’ll never forget. In fear for my family’s safety, you came to our place to help protect us. You were angels who put yourselves in danger in order to save us. You didn’t have to come to protect my family and put yours at greater risk. But you did it because you cared for us, and my gratitude for you remains with me always.
After sharing this letter, he said, “It was cathartic. These thoughts and feelings have been on my mind all these years. This letter finally gave me a way to express myself.”
Jackie invited others in her community and beyond to write letters as well. To her surprise, she received thousands of responses—letters from around the world containing words that people wish they had said.
One came from a 52-year-old woman named Sarah. She wrote:
I miss you. You were a wonderful husband and even better father. Emily misses you even more than I do. It’s been 23 years since you died. Sometimes, it feels like yesterday.
I really regret that I didn’t laugh at all your jokes. You’d try to crack me up when we were arguing, when I was frustrated by life and bills and all the stupid little things that made me mad. You’d play the fool for me and I would withhold my laughter to punish you because of my bad mood. I should have laughed. I’m sorry. I will love you forever.
Writing is not the only way we can address our regret. In the Bible, we read about King David reaching out to his deceased son Absalom. David and Absalom’s relationship had become estranged and then adversarial. Absalom was killed in a battle when he tried to overthrow his father’s reign. Upon hearing about his son’s death, David grieved instantly and intensely –despite his son’s betrayal. He spoke to Absalom directly, not by letter, but by crying out: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!”
It takes courage to be honest with ourselves. It takes courage to tell the truth and express our regret. This is what our tradition compels us to do. And what’s important is that we do it now.
A rabbinical colleague of mine shared with me that when he officiates a funeral, just before people take a shovel and place earth upon the casket, he invites them to settle any unfinished business with the deceased. He suggests they speak either aloud or to themselves those words that they would want to say to their dead relative or friend. And people do it.
I don’t want to be the one doing this at a gravesite. I don’t want to miss the chance to do this in person. We can grab the opportunity to have these conversations with people while they are still with us. We read tonight, “We are to bare our souls and face our nakedness. Will we choose to grow more worn and withered or awake to what should matter most?” Let’s awaken ourselves.
What about those relationships that are healthy and happy? One of my favorite one-panel cartoons shows a picture of a large convention hall with a banner above the hall’s entrance: “Welcome Children of Functional Families.” Sitting in the hall’s thousands of seats are five people. It’s funny and we know the truth. We know that most of our relationships with family and friends are healthy and functional, despite the occasional strain.
We don’t want to regret never having told them how we feel or telling them too rarely or too reservedly. Sometimes the people we love most get the least of our attention. I suggest we need to say to them directly and unequivocally: “I cherish you;” “I am fortunate to know you;” “I am grateful for you, all you have done, and for all that you do for me.” We can reinvigorate the relationships that are the most meaningful, those in need of repair and those thriving – this day is meant to help us reflect on how to deepen all our connections.
Moses does this. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is in an unusual situation. He knows he will not be going into the Land of Israel and he is aware he will soon die. Instead of separating himself from the Israelites, he uses his final days to share words of love and sometimes rebuke. Many of his words are timeless. They continue to ring in the consciousness of the Jewish people. We know these words as the Sh’ma prayer and the V’ahavta prayer, but before they ever made it into a prayer book, before prayer books even existed, they were part of Moses’ final goodbye words to his people. How lucky we are that he said them.
Yom Kippur reminds us all that it is never too late for us to say what needs to be said.
Our regret isn’t always about our relationships; it’s often about the choices we made, or didn’t make. I’ve talked to many people about these types of regrets. We all have them: pursuing an unsatisfying career, turning down the chance to live and work abroad, not purchasing that apartment that would have made life so much easier in our real-estate-crazy city. These are tough choices to come to terms with.
Hospice nurse Bronnie Ware wrote a book last year about the regrets of the dying. The two most common regrets she heard from her dying patients were that they’d made life choices that did not honor their dreams and that they’d spent too much time working. She urges us to “choose consciously, choose wisely and choose honestly.”
The only way we could possibly avoid regret is if we were totally perfect, and we know that we humans are not. For Jews, perfection has never been the goal, only t’shuvah, the act of repentance, or, more accurately, turning or returning to our best selves; the goodness, honesty, love, and kindness our tradition knows resides in each one of us.
Judaism takes a clear and positive stance about the future. When we return to this good within us, there will be better days ahead and our actions, our t’shuvah, our returning, will hasten their arrival.
Ours is a tradition of hopefulness. Our optimism comforts us when we are struggling, feeling unsteady or unsure. Hope buoys us when we mourn our losses. When we face our regrets, it helps us pave the way for future decisions. This is hard. It takes great courage to do this, and when we do, we are participating in the classic Jewish act of renewal. We must constantly renew our lives. It is never too late.
Each Shabbat morning here at Central Synagogue, we read these words:
You were convinced it could never happen, that nothing could change, that your despair would overtake you and drive you into the sea. But one day, today, you held your breath and decided to leap forward. And then the waters parted, and your feet found dry land.
Like our ancestors before us, we are here tonight to take steps forward. Let us speak to our children, let us find a confidant we trust to work on overcoming the inertia, our anger, embarrassment, or whatever it may be that keeps us from addressing our regrets. I invite us all this New Year to take the leap forward onto new and dry land.
It’s never too late to say “no” to the past
and “yes” to the future
to offer remorse for regrets
to ask and give forgiveness
It is never too late…
to feel again
to love again
to hope again.
The High Holy Days enable us to incorporate our regrets into our lives as gratitude and motivation; “we’ve learned, we’ve grown, and we continue to become”(Krivcher, Regret vs. Guilt).
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