Teshuvah and Changing the Past

Kol Nidre, 5776

How many in here have ever said, “The past is the past”?  This is unlike my question last week, about how many keep all 613 Mitzvoth.  I expect to see many more hands raised, because it is something we say all the time.  To whom do we say this?  We say it to those we have hurt or have wronged.  “Come on, it is in the past.  Move on already.”  Politicians say the past is the past to those that their government has hurt.  “It happened so long ago, pull yourself up already.”  And they say this, like us, because it is so much easier than saying "sorry."  It is much easier than finding the proper words for healing.  We try to bully or shame the other person to do the legwork, when it is we that need to accept this challenge.

The past is never really past; this saying is a complete misnomer.  The past is what we carry around with us in the present.  It is the present perception of that which was, and it is wrong to think that is finished or over.  And furthermore, it is an un‑Jewish way of thinking, one that we need to rid ourselves of.

Our tradition offers us the wisdom of teshuva/repentance as a means to fight off the weakness of the saying “what is done, is done.”  Repenting offers us the emotional wherewithal to rectify the hurt that we carry with us.  The change that we so often think exists outside of our ability to impact or alter.

The writer Andre Aciman describes a habit his mother had.  As a child, he could only understand it as madness, but now he recognizes its significance in her life and in his.  Unable to leave his father and in response to prolonged fights and unhappiness, his mother would rearrange the furniture in their home.  She had little control over most of the intimate aspects of her life but not the living room.  She would move the couch 180 degrees, swing the bookcase from this wall and place the coffee table on the other side of their den.  To an outsider this could only be understood as an irrational act of rage; but as Aciman points out, “she was trying to take control,” and she was “putting a new face to her life.”  She was not erasing the past, but nudging it in the direction she wanted it to be in.  She was, as he points out, giving her life “a narrative, a shape, a logic” that ultimately did not alter the facts they had known but shifted “their layout.”

This is precisely what teshuva suggests, that we shift the layout of our past.  To think the past is not to be dealt with is an impossibility.  We are the product of that which was, and we trick ourselves into thinking it does not matter.  Aciman is providing us with a meaningful way to attack those who say we cannot change and the piece of ourselves that wishes that was true.

Yom Kippur is all about change, about the possibility to overcome our weaknesses.  On Yom Kippur we confront our truest self:  the person who has hurt loved ones, who was not generous, who was lazy with their love.  The intersection of the High Holidays is one where we have been a lesser version of the person we wish to be.  But the headlight beaming into your front window is the radical notion that we have the ability to change the story of who we have been.  Change that fight into a stronger love; undo the callousness, and trade it for generosity.

Teshuva is our weapon.  By wielding it, we are recognizing that we have the ability to change our past.  Not to put makeup on it, but to change its interior as much as the exterior; to change how we remember a given interaction as much as our friend, partner or parent remembers it.  This is an aggressive move against the past; it will not erase it or cause the hurt to be forgotten.  But it allows us to reconstruct it in a way that does not simply enable us to sleep better at night but allows the person we may have hurt to sleep better, too.

Our tradition is telling us, "Yes, we screw up in the moment, but we must not hit ourselves over the head with guilt."  We must not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by our shortcomings.  Guilt and shame get in the way of our confronting the moments in the past that challenge the image we hold of ourselves.  Repenting gives our lives the necessary tools to make sense out of the past and guides us on the difficult road toward repairing damage.  Judaism stresses that we must not accept who we are as fact.  We are a work in progress; changing the past is an option for us.

How we live the present affects not only our future but the past as well.  We are given one story; but that does not have to be the one we accept, the one we keep in perpetuity.  We must not be slaves to a lesser version of our past.  We can make it better, and that way the future has the power to transcend the past.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said, “That is the paradox, the wonder of teshuva; a person can change the course of his life not only prospectively through resolutions for the future, but also retroactively.”  Our past may be the past, but it does not need to remain frozen in time.  By repenting, by engaging in a serious way with prior moments in time, we can, as Aciman points out, “Hijack the past.”  In an essay he asks the question, “What happens to the past after the writing process is done with it? ” For us, I would change his language to, “what happens to the past after we have done teshuvah?”  What was begins to fade as what is takes precedence.  Aciman writes that soon after his mother rearranged the house, no one could remember what it used to look like.

The Rabbis hijacked Yom Kippur and changed it from being a day of cultic rites and the ritual of the Scapegoat to being about repentance.  Yom Kippur pivoted from being about distance—a day for the Priests and God—to be about us and our memories.  Individual reckoning with who we are and reshaping our future.  The Jewish version of Back to the Future.

There is a beautiful scene in Colum McCann’s novel, Let the Great World Spin, where a husband and wife, who are both painters, are overcome by anger after a fight, and they neglect to collect their paintings from the backseat of their convertible.  That night a rainstorm ruins their earlier work.  The next morning the husband goes into a fit of rage, unable to see what the paintings look like now.  But his wife is mesmerized by the new style that has been created.  She says, more to herself than to him, “We could do something radical here.  Do the formal paintings in the style of the past and then destroy them… give it a new ending.  And then you reinterpret it.”  McCann is challenging us to find and seek out the rainstorms in our lives rather than avoid them.  And he wants us, as he writes, “To allow the present to work on the past.”

Instead of our memories and experiences being stored away unaltered, dusty from a lack of use, we can unlock them, recycling the past for a better use.  But for us the past is not an inanimate object with a certain value attached to it.  Our paintings are the feelings and emotions of friends and family—they are our core.  We need to have the courage to confront what we thought was done, what we tried to stow away in the basements of our memory.

The writer Lillian Hellman understood that our past was always just below the surface.  And she wrote about this reality of human existence in her memoir Pentimento.  In it she describes that it is often possible to see an earlier work of art emerge through what is on the top layer.  She wrote, “Old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent.  When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines:  a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea.  That is called pentimento because the painter ‘repented,’ changed his mind.  The paint has aged and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.”

So, too, with our lives we can see earlier brush strokes surface with each interaction.  A conversation we have with our child, the clouded interaction with a parent, or the distance between you and a once-dear friend.  It is the invisible divide that often holds our relationships hostage.  Hellman is telling us what teshuva and our tradition already know:  the present is simply our experience of the past.  The paint of our earlier strokes shines through more than we realize, or perhaps, more than we would like to acknowledge.

The Talmud teaches us that, in the end, we are brought to task not for what we did but all that we could have done.  The rectifying of earlier wrongs that we knew we needed to but did not.

What I want you to recognize is that this is a hopeful message!  What is the opposite of hope?  Hopelessness is where we cannot change, where who we are is set and becoming better is unattainable.  Yom Kippur is a time of hope, because the ability to be better is within each of us.

Pentimento is “an alteration in a painting, evidenced by traces of previous work, showing that the artist has changed his or her mind.”  This year let’s try harder.  Surface the pain others have caused you and strip away the veneer that too often holds us back.  Let's return to the original brush strokes of our purest self, and then the beauty of our best selves will shine through.

Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf