Rabbi Gregory S. Marx
Temple Beth Or
Well, John Barrymore, said in Good Night, Sweet Prince, A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” Isn’t that a powerful statement? We know that we are old, when our dreams, normally associated with the young are replaced by our regrets, usually associated with maturity. We can remember the dreams that we had when we were in college. We dreamed of a future full of love, success, passion and purpose. What happens to us when those dreams vanish and we are left with regrets over the mistakes that we made or worse, the opportunities that were lost? I surmise that many of us in this room are filled with regrets for harsh words we wish we had not said or things we failed to say to those we mourn. Too many of us have the added burden of regret for lost moments of love, forgiveness and intimacy with those who are now gone. That is indeed a tragedy. It makes us old.
A student of Leo Buscaglia submitted a poem during the Vietnam War. Its message is clear; if we don’t seize the special moments that come along, regret a powerful emotion, may be all that’s left.
Remember the day I borrowed your brand new car and scratched it and I thought you’d kill me, but you didn’t.
And the time I nagged you to take me to the beach and you said it would rain and it did. I thought you’d say, “I told you so,” but you didn’t.
And the time I flirted with all the guys to make you jealous and you were. I thought you’d leave me, but you didn’t.
And the time I spilled pie all over your brand new strawberry rug. I thought you’d yell at me, but you didn’t.
And the time I forgot to tell you that the dance was formal and you showed up in jeans. I thought you’d drop me, but you didn’t.
There were lot of things you didn’t do. You put up with me and you loved me and you protected me. There lots of things I wanted to make up to you when you returned from Vietnam. But you didn’t.
No one, however wise, has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. After a while we get weighed down with regret. Guilt induces feelings of unworthiness and perpetual pain. True moments of pleasure are often destroyed by these regrets which can haunt us for the rest of our lives John Whittier wrote, “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: “It might have been!” This indeed ages us before our time.
As we are about to begin Yizkor, we must face the truth that for some, our sacred task is to find forgiveness from our lost loves. Theocentrists argue that only God can release us from self-tormenting guilt. Humanocentrists believe that it must come from within. We alone have the power to grant self-absolution. Our tradition is a combination of the two. It wisely understands that the path to self-forgiveness is through the forgiveness of others. Remember our liturgy. First we forgive others for their sins committed against us and only then, do we seek forgiveness for our own misdeeds towards them from God. The door to inner peace opens outward.
Forgiving others releases us from pain, anger and bitterness. But it does so much more. It makes us believe in that one moment of transcendent grace that forgiveness is possible. And if we can forgive others, then they can forgive us. And we can find ultimate forgiveness from ourselves and from God.
So, as we are about to observe Yizkor, we must ask ourselves, how can we find forgiveness from the dead? How can we make peace for the hurts we inflicted upon those who are no longer among us? Many of us in this room are filled with remorse for bitter words uttered, loving words never said, caring deeds never done and moments remembered for our insensitivity or outright hostility. How can we find release from the burden of self-torment?
I would like to suggest that we find it by forgiving others who are still with us. We find it by loving others who are still with us. We find it by reaching out to others who are still with us. Is it the same as reaching out to those now gone? No. But it is the best we can do. And if we fail to do so, we will forever be trapped in yesterday, racked with remorse, and we will grow old far before our time. We must find the strength to reach out and love, or perish emotionally.
I remember reading a poem by Marge Piercy, which struck me to the core.
When I die
Give what’s left of me away.
And old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking down the street beside you.
And when you need me,
Put your arms
And give them
What you need to give to me.
I want to leave you something
Look for me
In the people I’ve known
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live in your eyes
And not in your mind.
You can love me most
Hands touch bodies,
And by letting go
That need to be free.
Love doesn’t die. People do. So, when all that’s left of me Is love, Give me away. When Adam and Eve lost Abel in the Bible, they felt that their lives had come to an end. The rabbis remind us that they were hopeless and despondent. They had no way to make peace with their murdered son. Commentators have pointed out that Adam and Eve felt partly responsible for Abel’s murder, having raised Cain, who wrought such death and callousness. But if we read the Torah carefully, we soon realize that Adam and Eve made peace with Abel, by bringing new life into the world. They had Enoch and Seth. The text gives us a coarse translation; “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, for Cain slew him.” A better understanding of the text is that Seth and Enoch were certainly not a replacement for Abel but rather a vehicle by which Adam and Eve, the grieving parents, could love again. And through the love of another, they were able to more deeply love their lost one and heal their hurts. Through their love of renewed life, they were able to surmount their regrets and escape the death of the soul. They found forgiveness and peace by loving those closest to them, even in the shadow of their loss.
My friends, as we begin our Yizkor service, many of us are suffering from the daunting pain of losing beloved family members and companions who have departed this Earth, and some, far too early or far too cruelly. To be sure, climbing out of the morass of regret is not a cure-all for mourners; but for the many of us whose mourning is enmeshed with regret, this is one gulf we can cross to help ease our pain. Even in the darkness of our deep losses, even in the anguish and agony that we feel from missing our loved ones, we must remember that there is a way to conquer our regrets. There is a path to forgiveness from those now gone. It is to love those still with us. It is to forgive those who are standing beside us.
Our regrets will paralyze life; our love and forgiveness can give it power. Our regrets will imprison life; our love and forgiveness can release it. Our regrets will sour life; our love and forgiveness can make it sweet. Our regrets will sicken life; our love and forgiveness will heal it. Our regrets will blind us to life, while our love and forgiveness will anoint our eyes. Our regrets will age us, while our love and forgiveness will keep us young.