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Go Ahead and Try: Why Pesach (and Judaism) Aren’t All-or-Nothing

April 12, 2017 Leave a comment

I’m going to risk the wrath of the Star Wars gods and disagree with Yoda.yoda_lulav

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker is required to lift his ship out of the Dagobah swamp using only his mind. Skeptical of his own ability to wield the Force, Luke says, “Alright, I’ll give it a try,” to which Yoda famously responds: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

OK, Master Yoda, I get what you’re trying to teach us: Luke needs to believe in himself if he’s going to be successful. He needs to set his bar at “do” and not just at “try” in order to send himself the message that he’s capable. I can buy that in theory. I definitely agree with the notion that if you believe in your own ability, you have a great chance of success. But here’s the problem: What if Luke fails? Does that mean he’s hopeless? If “there is no try,” then Luke might think he should just give up.

I think we do that in our religious lives all the time.

We are two days into Passover, and I’ve already seen at least 3 Facebook posts that said something like “Damn, I forgot and ate a bagel. Guess Pesach is over for me,” or “Got tempted by pizza – better luck next year.” These are really natural and human responses – we try; we fail; we throw in the towel. It was “do or do not” and we did not.

But what if Judaism isn’t “do or do not?”

Why do we keep kosher for Passover? For that matter, why do we perform any Jewish ritual – praying, wearing a tallit, saying a blessing, lighting Shabbat candles? https://i1.wp.com/crossfitkernersville.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/no-bread12.jpgThe traditional paradigm was one of obligation – you fulfill it because God commands it. (That’s what the word “mitzvah” means – commandment.) But for most progressive Jews today, ritual is about more than ticking off a box on God’s big mitzvah list. We do these things because we gain something from them. They connect us with one another and with our ancestors; they help promote gratitude and mindfulness. These benefits don’t disappear when our observance is “less than perfect.”

It might be helpful to think in terms of “practicing” Jewish rituals rather than “fulfilling” them. Jewish living really is meant to be a practice – something that evolves and changes, and that teaches us things. In that sense, it’s very much like sports, academics, and meditation. In our academic and athletic lives, we understand failures as learning opportunities: when you strike out at the plate, it makes you a better batter. If you get a D on a physics text, it shows you what you need to learn more about.

I think it’s the same with our Jewish practice. Failing to live up to our own religious standards, and evaluating the feelings that come along with that, can give us a sense of what matters to us: what is important, what is edifying, and what is sustainable in our lives. And that can help us build a more meaningful ritual life for the long term.

(For what it’s worth, I actually think Yoda knew this – he had 900 years of accumulated wisdom, after all – but he conveniently left out for Luke that you can’t always “do” on the first attempt.)

When we have an all-or-nothing view of Judaism, we will be more likely to be afraid of failing, and maybe more likely to refrain to participating entirely. But you can’t “fail” Judaism. As long as we are thoughtful about our practice, and as long as we continuing to learn and grow and challenge ourselves, then we are doing exactly what Judaism demands of us.

My Father Was a Syrian Refugee: Pesach & Freedom in 2016

April 21, 2016 Leave a comment

NOTE: This essay was cross posted at Kol Ami.

In the Passover seder, we are commanded to tell our story of freedom beginning with the words: “Arami Oveid Avi – My father was a wandering/escaped Aramean.” There are differences of opinion regarding whether this line refers to Abraham or to Jacob. But either way, its meaning is clear. Our people got their start as escapees from the land of Aram, which is now in northern Syria. We begin our Jewish story as Syrian refugees.

In fact, the Jewish experience is one of being the stranger and welcoming the stranger. Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, were known for keeping their tent open on all four sides, so that they might rush out and bring passersby into their home. It’s known as Hachnasat Orchim – Welcoming the guest. Later, as our people emerged from slavery, we were commanded “V’ahavtem et Hageir – You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And only 8 decades ago, our people once again were the strangers and the refugees, trying to escape the dangers around them in Europe, and often labeled as security threats or subversives.

As Jews, that’s the religious and historical experience that we bring to the current refugee crisis. As Canadians, we also bring a deep respect for pluralism and for the immigration mentality that has made this country what it is. Aware of the security risks, aware of the challenges that immigration can bring with it, we approach the world with a desire to uphold Tzelem Elohim – to uphold the image of God in each human being.

May this season of freedom be a harbinger of freedom for all people, in all corners of the world. Someday may there be a time when no one will every have to say “Arami oveid avi – My father was a refugee.”

A Meditation for Selichot

September 6, 2015 Leave a comment

On this night of forgiveness, we think about the wrongs that have been done. There are people we have wronged. There are people who have wronged us.  

Our tradition teaches us to be like God, to be “rachum v’chanun erech apayim v’rav chesed v’emet” – compassionate and gracious, forgiving and slow to anger and filled with loving kindness.  

Sometimes it’s easy to forgive. Sometimes we can think about the things people have done, and understand their motivations, and find a place in our hearts to make it ok.  

 But there is one person whom we often find most difficult to forgive: ourself.   

The High Holy Days are a time to try to understand ourselves. To delve deeply into our own souls, to think deeply about why we are what we are and why we do what we do. To admit our own frailty. To admit our own humanity. To try to find a place in our hearts to forgive ourselves for being human.  

We are imperfect beings. We have done wrong, and we will do wrong. Admitting this is not the same as excusing ourselves. Rather, in admitting our imperfections, we take upon ourselves the responsibility to try to do better in the coming year. It is the task of the High Holy Days. And it is a task that begins this very evening. 

 Rabbi Leo Baeck said: “To seek God is to strive for the good. To find God is to do good.” 

 On this night of forgiveness, during these days of awe, and all throughout the coming year, may we strive to do good, and may we strive to bring the holy and the Godly into the world. 

Maggid: Telling the Story (A Seder Supplement)

April 2, 2015 Leave a comment

NOTE: The primary purpose of the Pesach Seder is “maggid” – telling the story of the Exodus. According to the Talmud, we are meant to do so by expounding on Deuteronomy’s words of slavery and freedom – “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Here is my attempt for this year to find modern meaning in those ancient words:

אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי
My father was a wandering Aramean.

What is an Aramean? It is someone from Aram – the land north of Israel. Someone who came from elsewhere, whose journey began as something else. The Jewish story begins with wandering that is both physical and spiritual – just as Abraham and Sarah made their way toward the land of Israel, so did they make their way toward a new way of thinking and believing and understanding the universe. Away from idolatry and toward TIkkun Olam. Today, we continue that journey of questioning and learning and growing. We are still wandering Arameans.

ַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם
He went down to Egypt with small numbers and lived there, and there he became a great and very populous nation.
The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means “narrow places.” We all have narrow places in our lives, times of pain, loss, and confusion. And in those moments, we may feel as though we are surrounded by “m’tei m’at” – by very little in terms of support and strength. Yet those are the times when we need our loved ones the most. When people we care about are in mitzrayim – when they are in narrow places – our role is to turn m’tei m’at into atzum v’rav – to turn little strength into much strength, to surround them with support so that they can continue make their way.

וַֽיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָֽב וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים וַיְעַנּוּנוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָֽׁה
And there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians were cruel to us and oppressed us, and imposed heavy labour upon us.
Why does it matter that we were populous in Egypt? Because it made us frightening to the Egyptians. Because we were many and because we were different, they oppressed and enslaved us. Today, we live in a society that is perhaps the most diverse in history. But we are still too afraid of the differences between us – differences of belief and practice, differences of culture and skin colour. On this festival of freedom, may we work to free ourselves of our preconceptions and assumptions about people who look, believe, pray, vote, or speak differently than we do.

וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָֹה אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ וַיַּרְא אֶת־עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת־עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶֽת־לַֽחֲצֵֽנוּ:
We cried to Adonai, the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.
God couldn’t see our misery beforehand?! God didn’t know we were slaves until we cried out?! Why did God allow 400 years of slavery? Why does God allow anyone to suffer? It isn’t God who “allows” people to suffer; it is us. And it isn’t only God’s role to hear the cries of our fellow human beings and act on their behalf; it is also ours. If there are hungry children in our schools, we must feed them. If there are homeless in our cities, we must shelter them. If we wait around for God to do God’s work, it may never get done.

וַיּֽוֹצִאֵנוּ יְהוָֹה מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל וּבְאֹתוֹת וּבְמֹֽפְתִֽים:
Adonai freed us from Egypt with great strength, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and amazing things!
There are wonders and signs of God’s presence all around us:

  • The loving family and friends who surround us
  • The earth that gives us life and fulfills all of our needs.
  • Our human capacity to grow, to learn, to dream, and to build.

On this Pesach may we challenge ourselves to better appreciate the miracles in our world, and may we commit ourselves to the task of building a better world.

Chag Pesach Sameach!

The Life That We Would Like to be Living: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5773

September 19, 2012 1 comment

The Architect Frank Lloyd Wright tells about a memory. He was nine years old, and he was walking across a snowy field with his no-nonsense uncle. The boy wandered this way and that, collecting reeds and taking in the scenery, while his uncle walked straight across the field. Upon reaching the top of the hill, to two looked back. Uncle John pointed to his straight line of footprints, and then to Frank’s meandering path and he said sternly, “There’s a lesson in that, you know.”

Frank Lloyd Wright later said that that moment had shaped his philosophy. While Uncle John had intended to teach about the virtues of avoiding distraction, “I determined right then not to miss [out on] life, as [he] had.”

Life is too precious to miss.
Life is too precious to be spent looking down rather than around, to be spent working rather than playing.

But it seems today our world is constantly throwing at us new ways to miss out on life. New devices that teach us to look down rather than out. New excuses to bury ourselves in our work and our daily tasks and forget about what really matters.

On the High Holy Days, we take time to reflect on our lives and our choices. We ask ourselves: Do my daily actions reflect my values? Am I living the life I would like to be living?

Today, it seems that the boundaries between our work lives and our real lives are being constantly eroded. “Work-life balance” is the buzzword of the day, because balance is the thing that we are all missing. It used to be that our parents and grandparents would get in the car in the morning and drive to the office. Today, we carry our offices with us. Today, we can edit digital documents at the dinner table, answer emails from our beds, and text our colleagues from red lights (though it’s illegal, thankfully). With our smartphones in our pockets and our Bluetooth devices on our ears, we are accessible 24/7/365. We spend more time looking down than out; we spend more time working than living.

According to a government survey,  “one in four Canadians works 50 hours per week or more.” Ten years ago it was one in ten.[1] And those of us with smartphones – forget about it! – they put in an extra 365 hours a year.[2] That’s 15 days a year that we spend answering emails on our tiny little screens when we’re supposed to be paying attention to our families and ourselves.

In the 21st century, our technological advances and our lifestyle changes have blurred the line between our work lives and our real lives. And it’s our real lives that are suffering.

This may seem like a uniquely modern problem, but our texts tell us that even our earliest ancestors struggled to balance their obligations with their private lives – some with more success than others. In fact, the Torah gives one example of a Jewish figure who became so completely all consumed by his work that his family fell apart. Maybe you’ve heard of him; his name is Moses.

We know Moses as the great prophet and leader of our people. But it’s easy to forget that he was also a human being with a family. And we forget with good reason, because according to Torah, for much of his life, Moses’ attention was focused anywhere but on his family. Here is a man who was so important, who had so many responsibilities, that they consumed his entire being.

According to Exodus 18, Jethro had to teach Moses how to delegate so that he wouldn’t try to do everybody’s jobs for them. According to the previous chapter, Moses sent his family away for extended periods of time. According to Exodus 4, he forgot to circumcise his own sons. The Torah doesn’t even mention the birth of his second son Eliezer; it’s not clear that he was even there.

In fact, the text calls Moses’ family not by their names but as “Ishtecha Ushnei Vaneiha – your wife and her two sons.” Her two sons, taught Rabi Hiyya, because she, and not Moses, had raised them.

In that sense, Moses is a tragic figure: one who achieves extraordinary things, but does so at the expense of his private life. Moses is undoubtedly the greatest teacher, prophet, rabbi, judge, and leader in the history of our people. But as a husband and father… he was kind of lousy!  In fact, the Torah is full of prominent people who mismanaged their personal lives because they were too busy doing great things. There’s Abraham, whose dedication to his mission manages to estrange both his wife and his son. There’s Joseph, who gives up his Jewish identity in Pharaoh’s court. There’s Isaac, who sows seeds of discord between his children that last for generations.

And although these stories are extreme, we may be able to see glimpses of ourselves – of our bad habits, of the choices that we wish we were making differently. And if we look closely, perhaps we can find solutions as well.

Rabbi Larry Kushner writes about a friend of his, an Episcopal minister, who – like many of us – had a desk full of papers. Once a month, the minister would take every piece of paper, and throw it away! So Rabbi Kushner once asked his friend, “What if there’s something important on your desk?” The minister explained, “If it’s important, it’ll come back.”[3]

The problem with our lifestyle today is not that we have too much to do. The problem is that that it’s hard to remember what matters most, when you are constantly inundated by all the details.

Before going any further, it needs to be said: From a Jewish perspective, there is nothing wrong with working hard.  Hard work and a fulfilling career are great virtues. Why else would the Torah tell us that David was a shepherd and Adam was a gardener? And many any of the earliest Rabbis were known by names like “Rabbi Yochanan the Sandle-maker” and “Rabbi Hillel the wood-cutter.” (By the way, I’ve always wanted to be known as “Rabbi Micah the Rock-Star,” but it hasn’t taken off yet.)

So our earliest rabbinic role models also defined themselves around their careers. But the reason they were great rabbis is that they found time for personal study, for teaching, and self-betterment. That’s not easy to do.

Rabbi Meyer Twersky wrote:

The Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) works hard to keep us too busy. That way we have no energy left to think, to reflect, to better ourselves.

Fortunately for us, there is an institution in Judaism that was created precisely for the purposes of thinking, reflecting, and bettering ourselves… and it occurs every single week.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.

It is said that very Friday night 2 angels follow us to our doors. If they find a home prepared for Shabbat, a meal ready to be enjoyed, a family spending time together, then they bless us, saying, “May it always be so.”

Shabbat is Judaism’s answer to the challenge of finding balance in life. Once a week, we Jews are commanded to withdraw from the working world – to go 25 hours traditionally without cooking, mending, lighting fires, working at our professions, or in any way trying to control or own the world around us.  It is through Shabbat that Judaism attempts to give us freedom from our enslavement to our everday obligations. In fact, you might say that the Jews invented the weekend.

But there’s more than that.  Shabbat is, at its core, a matter of human dignity. It is a concrete manifestation of the idea that every person deserves to rest. It’s a reflection of the Jewish belief that all human beings are created in God’s image, since God also rested on the seventh day. Most importantly, it is the way that we as Jews are meant to care for ourselves, so that we can better care for the world around us.

The story is told of a woman who would walk back and forth each day between her home and the well of water outside the town. She always carried two buckets – and one them had a hole in it. And while many people believed it was just broken, it most definitely was not. Each bucket had its own job, the woman would explain: with one bucket she cared for own needs – she carried water to her home. And with the other bucket, the one with the tiny hole in the bottom, she shared her water… with the earth, the animals, with the plants that needed it. And if either of the buckets had ever been lost, the whole task would have been rendered useless.

We cannot care for our world unless we care for ourselves. We cannot be at our best in our jobs and our schools and our communities unless we have taken the time to rejuvenate our bodies and our souls. Shabbat is a gift to help us find rest and strength and balance in our lives.

“Big surprise!” you’re thinking. “The Rabbi is giving a sermon on Shabbat.” But before your eyes start to glaze over, let me just say that I’m not giving the sermon you think I’m giving. This is not part of the sermon where I’m going to tell you to come to shul more often, or to read more Torah, or to start saying more blessings.

No, this is a different sermon. Because I believe that a new century calls for a new approach. That instead of the same old same old, it is time to find fresh ways to celebrate Shabbat – ways that make sense in our world. That is the Jewish way.

There’s an old joke that tells about Moses standing on top of Mt. Sinai, and God enumerating the commandments:

 God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses: Does that mean we shouldn’t eat any dairy with milk?

God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Moses: “So, we should have separate dishes for milk and meat meals, and then another two sets for Passover?”
God: “You shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
Moses: “Got it — we should have two separate dishwashers. And we should wait eight hours after eating brisket before having any cheesecake.”

God: Fine, have it your way.

As Reform Jews, we recognize that Jewish practice has changed through the ages. And that means that it must continue to change, continue to evolve, in order to meet our needs. All joking aside, our movement has put a lot of thought into redefining some of the important institutions of Jewish life. Our belief in egalitarianism led us to redefine what it means to be a rabbi. The environmental crisis led us to redefine what it means to keep kosher. And in the information age – in a time of unprecedented access to technology and unprecedented demands on our time – we will need to redefine and reclaim Shabbat as our own. We need it too much to let it go.

A few years ago the Union for Reform Judaism released a set of Shabbat cards with ideas for ways to make Shabbat meaningful. Not the traditional ways, but new ways. I’ll read a few:

  • On Shabbat, I have something special for lunch. Our favourite is falafel with salsa.
  • Whenever possible, we spend Shabbat outdoors: hiking, gardening, or skateboarding.
  • Unlike the rest of the week, our children aren’t allowed to wake us up on Shabbat morning.
  • I do not run errands on Shabbat.
  • I don’t open mail on Shabbat.
  • I turn off my Blackberry on Shabbat.

All of these are things that ordinary Reform Jews around North America are doing because they recognize just how powerful that Day of Rest can be. And what makes these ideas so powerful is that they address real needs in our lives. The Talmud doesn’t know about smartphones, but they are certainly the greatest intrusion on our time. The sages would have told us that gardening wasn’t approproate on Shabbat, but in a world where we are so disconnected from the earth, what better way to get back to nature.  As Reform Jews, it is our right and our mandate to find modern and meaningful ways to live our Jewish values.

If Judaism says to eat your favourite food on Shabbat, and you like sushi better than chicken soup, then have sushi for Shabbat dinner. (And then invite me!) If Judaism tells us to appreciate nature, then for God’s sake go tobogganing on Shabbat afternoon. Our Shabbat may look completely different than our great-grandparents’ Shabbat. It may even look completely different from our own preconceptions, But it will be just as authentic, just as real, just as meaningful, because it addresses the real lives we are living.

I’m proud to announce that this year, Temple Kol Ami will be launching an initiative called “Reclaiming Shabbat.” It is a challenge to ourselves to find meaning in Judaism’s oldest and most important holy day. I’m challenging each member of our congregation to celebrate 2 Shabbats a month – on in sul and one at home, and to find creative ways to do so, beyond coming to services and Religious School.

So starting this morning, I want you to start brainstorming, about how you can Shomer Shabbat – how you can observe Shabbat in a way that will work for you and your family, and we’ll share those ideas with each other – through the Voice, through the Kol Ami blog, and on the bulletin board outside this door. Maybe it’s a weekly trip to a favourite restaurant. Maybe it means DVRing your favourite TV show and saving it for Saturday afternoon, or writing haiku on Friday afternoon about the events of the week, or, like Frank Lloyd Wright, taking a meandering walk through a snowy field – not to get from one place to the next, but simply to enjoy being where you are.

Ahad Ha’am once said, “More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” Shabbat, he said, is the institution that has kept us Jewish. It has set us apart, it has sustained us, it has made us holy. It’s time we return the favour.

Let us resolve in the coming year, not to miss out on our lives – not to spend our precious minutes looking at screens and focusing on things that, in the end, do not matter. Let us resolve to spend one day a week, or one hour of one day, building relationships, rejuvenating ourselves, living the life that we would like to be living.

Amen.

Sukkot: Measuring the Years

October 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Sukkot is the strangest holiday we have, and it has the strangest rituals. It’s one thing to sit around the table and eat and sing (like we do on every holiday). It’s quite another thing to build a shack in the back yard and wave around a bunch of plants in all directions.  What’s that all about?!

Of course, what that’s all about is agriculture. A long time ago, our farmer ancestors used to reap their fields during this time of year. The festival of Sukkot was born out of the practice of measuring the yield and giving thanks to God.

Well, I’m not a farmer. (I can’t even keep houseplants alive!) But I do have something that I measure every year on Sukkot, and it has transformed this holiday into the most special time of year for our family.

Four years ago, my wife and I decided to designate one pole of our sukkah as a “measuring stick.” Each year, when we build our sukkah, we make sure that pole ends up in the doorway, and we mark each child’s height on it in permanent marker. That way, every Sukkot they get to see how much they’ve grown in the past year, and we get to celebrate the fact that they got a little taller and a little older.

I know there’s nothing novel about measuring your kids every year. Plenty of parents do it on birthdays, or on New Year’s Day. But for me, the connection with Sukkot is really important. Judaism tells me that on this holiday, I’m supposed to measure and be thankful for the yield of the past year. I think that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Plus, it makes us really look forward to putting up our sukkah!

Chag Sameach!

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

October 9, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

Amen.