Becoming a parent has brought great joy to my life. It has also forced me to struggle with the troublesome feeling of regret.
When my son was an infant, I was working (more than) full-time as a congregational rabbi and regretted not being able to spend more time with him. Soon after my daughter was born, I left my job so that I could spend more time with my children; in short order, I began to miss the congregation and question my choice to leave. I couldn’t win.
Speaking to other moms, I was surprised to discover how many have struggled with the same pesky emotion of regret.
In this week’s Torah portion, our Heavenly Parent had the same problem. Just 10 generations after creating humanity, God saw how great man’s wickedness was on earth. Genesis recounts: “God regretted that God had made humanity on the earth, and God’s heart was saddened.”
So God brought on the flood, saving Noah, his family and the animals on the ark. After the flood, God decided that floods were not the best plan, after all, and vowed never again to destroy the world. God showed Noah and his family a rainbow to signal God’s promise to preserve the earth.
The story of Noah leaves me with the question: Do our regrets ruin or enhance life? When feeling regret, we can ask ourselves whether this emotion is self-destructive or whether it is leading us in new, positive directions. The great medieval scholar Maimonides detailed the process of teshuvah, or repentance. According to his model, regret is the first step – followed by confession, and changing one’s behavior both in the present and future. Maimonides understood that regret can be a catalyst for transformation, but only if it is followed by positive changes in behavior.
As a mother, I’ve experienced both kinds of regret. My initial regret about missing time with my son led me to prioritize my family in a new way. However, my subsequent regret was a form of self-doubt and self-flagellation that made me pine for the past, rather than embrace the future. When I slip into this destructive kind of regret, I try to remember what Hillary Clinton said in her farewell address at the conclusion of her unsuccessful bid for the presidency. Her words summarize the week’s Torah portion perfectly: “Life is too short, time is too precious, and the stakes are too high to dwell on what might have been.”
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.