Maimonides listed regret as the first step in preparing for teshuva (repentance) during the Jewish High Holiday season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Without regret, he said, there can be no forgiveness.
To feel regret is to be human. We regret unkind words said out of anger, poor decision-making during moments of weakness, extravagant purchases, bad relationships, the list goes on and on. And this year, as we face an ever-growing pandemic, a reckoning over racial injustice and a polarizing election, I am struck by just how many regrets I have. I regret not having more conversations with those I disagree with. I regret not prioritizing quality time with my friends and loved ones. I regret not using my privilege to better the lives of those around me. In this moment of isolation and protest, it is easy to get stuck thinking about all the things I could have done differently.
But wallowing in regret isn’t the point of the High Holy Days. Instead, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ask us to channel our regrets into meaningful action, using them to encourage positive growth in the year to come. Certainly we are meant to acknowledge our faults, as Maimonides teaches, but they should always be used to inspire change and growth.
Imagine that you have a nice, clean blackboard put up during the month leading up to the High Holy Days, and that throughout that month you write all of your regrets from the previous year. The High Holidays arrive and after some critical self-assessment and necessary teshuva, you erase the blackboard, excited to continue on with a new year and a clean slate. Now, imagine that a year passes and you take out that blackboard once again, anticipating that you will have a nice, clean board to write your regrets, but the board isn’t clean. In fact it hasn’t been clean in years. Because every regret you have ever written on that board has left a mark, a faded mark, but a mark. The regrets have somehow become a part of the board itself, acting as a backdrop upon which you write new regrets each and every year.
This metaphor, by Rabbi Amanda Greene of Chicago Sinai Congregation, teaches us that there are no clean slates in Judaism, or in life. We aren’t supposed to blot out our regrets but confront them, learn from them, live with them. So that maybe we aren’t writing the same things on the blackboard year after year. And when we take out that board we have a faded reminder of our growth.
The Jewish High Holidays do not provide us with a clean slate, but a reminder that the regrets of our past don’t have to define our future. We have the power to do things differently, to make smarter choices and be better people. I have the ability to facilitate dialogue with those I disagree with politically, and prioritize spending time with the people I care about. I have a voice and a platform that can be used to pursue justice for marginalized communities and peace in our fractured world. I have all the tools in front of me; the question is whether I am ready and willing to use them.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are now over, and my blackboard has once again been wiped. But that doesn’t mean I am free from the regrets of my past. It is still my responsibility to ensure that those regrets foster meaningful change in my life, the lives of those I care about and the world around me. Because I don’t want to see those regrets on my blackboard next year, and that is on me.
• Max Antman with Sukkat Shalom; pronouns: he, him, his; Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; candidate for rabbinic ordination. “Living Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders.