We Can’t Change the Past (A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5772)

A great scholar once taught that:

The future hasn’t been written yet. The future is whatever you make it.

Those are wise words, especially for Yom Kippur, as we sit and ponder the coming year, ponder the future.

But I’ll bet you’ll never guess who it was that said those wise words. It wasn’t a rabbi, or a Prime Minister or a philosopher. It was Doctor Emmett Brown, the time-traveling mad scientist from Back to the Future. If there’s anyone who knows about the past and the future, it’s Doc Brown. After all, he and Marty McFly spent three whole movies surfing round the space-time continuum, raising such important philosophical questions as: “What if you made a time machine out of a sports car?” and “When will hoverboards be invented?”

But in all seriousness, the movie actually does ask some important questions, and they are some of the same questions that we ask on the High Holy Days: about how our history shapes who we are today, about who we would be if we had the ability to change the past in order to shape the future.

Because we’re human, we all have regrets – about things we did or said or people that we hurt. And because we’re human, we all wish we could go back and change some things. In fact, you may not have realized it, but we opened our service tonight by trying to do just that.

“Kol Nidrei,” we said. “May all of our vows, all of the oaths and promises we’ve made in the past year, be considered null and void, if we were unable to fulfill them. In other words, if we couldn’t manage to accomplish what we promised to accomplish, to be who we promised to be, then let it be as though we never promised it to begin with. Let it be as though we’ve changed the past

Sounds nice, doesn’t it. An easy solution to the fact that we can’t always keep our end of the bargain – just retroactively cancel the bargain.

But it’s not so simple. You see, Kol Nidrei is not just retroactive; it’s also proactive. At the same time we ask to be forgiven for last year’s failures, we also beg God in advance to forgive us for what we will not accomplish this year. Turns out it’s not about changing the past at all; it’s about the expression of who we wish we were during this time of year. It’s about the longing to be better people than we are.

In the Mahzor Lev Shalem, the High Holiday prayerbook of the Conservative movement (p. 205) , it says: “Kol Nidrei expresses our fear that even our best intentions for the new year will not be fulfilled. [And it] expresses how much we regret what was not accomplished in the past year.

Because we are human, we are imperfect. Because we are human, we will have failures. And because we are human, we can’t change the past.

And while that may be a source of frustration to us in our everyday lives, the truth is, most of us wouldn’t want to. Our past – even our failures – are too important, because they help shape who we are today.

It is said that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, the great Chassidic master, was once accosted by a highway robber who was famous for his brutality and his ruthlessness. The Rabbi took one look at him and said, “I know who you are! I have to admit I’ve always been a little envious of you.”

“Envious of me?” Replied the criminal.  “Why would a great scholar possibly envy a lowly robber.”

“Because,” said the Rebbe, “our sages teach that God loves the sinner so much that his if he repents, his sins can be counted as merit. And you are famous for your wicked deeds. Why, if you were to repent, no one could match you for your merit!”

The mistakes and sins and experiences of our past remain part of who we are, and they can help us be better people in the present.

We’ve all known great, patient teachers who were once themselves problem students. Sometime the kindest doctors are those who have tasted illness. The most successful entrepreneurs have often learned from their own failed businesses.

This past week, the world marked the death of a cultural and business icon. Steve Jobs, who founded Apple, who gave us the personal computer, the ipod, the iphone. Love him or hate him, he will be remembered for forever changing the way we consume information and connect with each other. But, Allison Lin at MSNBC that:

“He’ll also be remembered fondly as the poster child for how making mistakes — and even failing — can sometimes end up being the best thing that ever happen to you.”[1]

If you go back and look at Jobs’s story, you find that he was a college dropout. He founded, was fired from, and eventually retook the helm of Apple Corporation. But before he became a success, he had managed to drive his own company into the ground, and to found another ill-fated computer company called NeXT. Only on his third go-around – when he returned to Apple with those experiences under his belt – was he ever viewed as anything resembling a success.

Most of us are not technology magnates or billionaires, but we can learn from our failures – whether failures of business or in school or even in our relationships. And we can become better people by applying those lessons to our lives today.

It’s been said that “Error [is] the raw material out of which future successes are forged. Failure is not a crime. Failure to learn from failure is.”[2]
We can’t change the past, but we can change the meaning of the past when we learn from it to shape the present.

It’s not easy to forgive ourselves our failures. And it’s even more difficult to forgive others.

In the Talmud, there is a story about about the great Rabbi Meir, one of the finest and most learned sages of early Talmudic times. It says that there were some criminals in his neighbourhood who caused him a great deal of trouble. So he prayed to God for them to die.

The Rabbi’s wife, Beruriah, who was known as a scholar in her own right, rebuked him, saying: “Why would you think such a prayer is allowed? Do you not know that when the Psalms say “Yitmu chot’im min ha-aretz – Let sinners disappear from the earth” that it could also be read to say “Yitmu chata’im – Let sin disappear from the earth?” Rather than praying for their death, you should pray that they repent and there will be no more wicked people.”

Rabbi Meir understood that his wife was right. He prayed for the criminals to return from their ways, and when they did, he forgave them.[3]

Forgiving means trusting that we and others have the ability to change. It means believing that our past mistakes do not have to define us. And forgiving can be very, very hard to do.

Tomorrow morning, as part of our service, we will recite a formula through which we officially exonerate those who have done wrong by us. We will say:

“I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have wronged me, whether deliberately or inadvertently, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account.”[4]

But it’s one thing to say the words, and quite another to actually believe them. When we are wronged, it’s not in our nature to forgive. And let’s be honest: we’ve all been wronged.

Every one of us has been hurt by others. Sometimes purposefully, sometimes by accident, sometimes simply by misunderstanding. It happens in our workplaces, in our marriages and families. Even within our own synagogue community there are people who have disagreed or argued – over what was best for the congregation, or what was the right or wrong path to take – and who have said or done things they later regretted.

And it’s so easy to remain mired in our grudges. It’s so easy to hold onto our anger. But failing to move forward from the past means being condemned to live there. What is best for our relationships – for our marriages and our families and our communities and ourselves – is to forgive, when we can.

We can’t change the past, but we can change the meaning of the past when we strive to forgive those who are as flawed as we are.

But what’s also true is that no matter how hard we try, there are some crimes that cannot be forgiven. And so, when we can’t look backward, all we can do is look forward.

Ernst Werner Techow was an anti-semitic terrorist who, in 1922, assassinated Germany’s Jewish foreign minister, Walter Rathenau. While he was in prison, Techow received a letter from his victim’s mother. She wrote: “I will forgive, even as God may forgive, if before an earthly judge [you] make a full and frank confession…. And before a heavenly judge repent.”

Techow was deeply touched by that letter. And years later, after being released from prison for good behavior, he smuggled himself into France during the Second World War where he helped over seven hundred Jews escape the Nazi regime.

He admitted later that the letter from Rathenau’s mother had prompted his actions. He said. “I only wished that I would get an opportunity to right the wrong I’d done.”

Even after saving 700 innocent souls, Techow did not believe that he had made up for his crime. And in truth, how many of us could see fit to forgive, to erase the past, in a case like this one. But Techow knew that even though our past actions are already written, our future actions are not. And whether he erased his crime we could debate until the end of the world, but he certainly made a difference in the lives of 700 people.

Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda taught that “Our days are like scrolls. We should write on them what we want to be remembered.”

And our tradition tells us at this time of year that it is never too late to change what we will be remembered for.

We can’t change the past, but we can change the meaning of the past by creating a better future.

Kol Nidrei v’esarei v’charamei. All our vows and oaths and promises rise before us on the Yom Kippur evening. Because we are human, we make mistakes. Because we are human, we often fail. But we should remember that our failings can continue to be a constructive part of who we are.

And though we can’t travel in time to change the past, to erase our past wrongs or nullify our failed oaths, the truth is that’s not why we’re here.  On this night of Kol Nidrei, we are here to begin to come to terms with the imperfect beings that we have been, to ask God’s permission and to ask our fellow human beings’ permission to move forward.

We can’t change the past, but we can change the meaning of the past through the choices we make, through the way we live our lives each and every day.

During these High Holy Days, may we strive to learn from our failures, to forgive others their failures, and to work together for a better future.


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