Still Repenting for 2016: Regret, Learning, Action

As the Jewish High Holy Day season draws to a close, our Yom Kippur breast-beating gives way to Simchat Torah celebration.  The story of Creation will soon remind us that if we did our work of teshuvah* well, we will have another chance to create ourselves and our world anew – informed by the hard lessons of past mistakes fresh in our minds.

But I confess, even after a very intense High Holy Day season this year, I still carry guilt from the past, mistakes that have yet to be fully corrected, as deeply as I regret them and as hard as I have prayed.

Maimonides teaches that complete teshuvah is not achieved in the synagogue when we recite the Yom Kippur liturgy.  Complete teshuvah is a matter of greeting a parallel situation and doing something different than what we did before. 

In a few short weeks, as we face our Presidential election, Americans will have a chance to enact our teshuvah for the colossal mistakes of 2016. And not just those who will change their votes or get to the ballot box for the first time.  To succeed, we must all do something different.

I remember four years ago, the weeks leading up to the election.  The worry and the hope.  The polls.  The leaked tapes and emails.  The head of the FBI duped by the Russians.

I remember the Day After.  Trudging to drop off my pre-schooler, sharing poetry of heartbreak with other parents in the parking lot, crying with the women who were my son’s loving teachers – a Black woman, a Latina woman, a Muslim woman wearing hijab, and me, the rabbi, huddled in disbelief and fear.

I remember writing sermons of regret looking back – I woke up too late!  I didn’t do enough!  I remember wondering how quickly fascism could descend, and what I could do as a leader to protect my family and community.  I remember conversations with those who thought I was over-reacting – surely it couldn’t happen here…

But since then…

The past four years have been an unending string of catastrophes – for the environment, human rights, democracy and simple survival.  Wildfires burn as fossil fuels gain protection.  Children are torn from their mothers and imprisoned.  Hate marches and shoots in American streets and sanctuaries.  Leaders attack the free press and suppress the vote.  On the ground, a movement of truth-deniers stockpiles guns, tunes in to wild conspiracy theories, and physically attacks their fellow citizens. A pandemic response proves so inept and negligent that we now mourn over 210,000 Americans.

Putin could not be more pleased.

This time, I may not have the power on my own to change the outcome of the election, but I owe it to myself and my children to do MUCH MORE than I did in 2016.  I have resolved to greet this parallel situation and behave differently.

With a pandemic raging, it’s not clear how to achieve that.  Some of us are writing post cards.  Some are making calls. Some are getting involved in local ballot measures.  I know I’ll be giving more political contributions than I ever have in my life.

This time, however things turn out, and especially if they don’t go the way I hope, I want to know I did everything I could.  I hope that you will too. 

It’s not too late.  Give now.  Speak up now.  Volunteer now.  The future depends on it.

In these critical weeks, I pray that our regret and our suffering might be redeemed by this chance to enact our teshuvah, and may each of us move into far more action than we did the last time we faced such a crossroads.

*Teshuvah, often translated as repentance, is the work of turning away from mistakes and bad behavior, righting our wrongs, and becoming a better person.