Repentance and Regret

Published September 29, 2006, issue of September 29, 2006.
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It is September, and it is time for regret. A chill has entered the air, with a suddenness that never fails to surprise. We want to think that the warmth and ease of summer will last at least a bit longer, but it never does. We’re out of time. As Frank Sinatra used to sing, “the days grow short when you reach September, when the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame. One hasn’t got time for the waiting game.” And so, reluctantly, the swimsuits and backyard grills return to the basement, the kids return to school and, in short order, the Jews return to synagogue.

There is a logic to the seasons, a relentless, implacable flow, a cycle that is beyond our powers and yet is rooted deep within us. Joy is followed by regret, then foreboding, then fear, pain and sadness, then hope and then again joy, followed by… regret. And again it is September.

For many of us, the first impulse is to ignore it. We want to think that we are above it all, that we can run off and fashion our own fate, as the prophet Jonah tried to do in the biblical tale read in synagogues on the Day of Atonement. But that is the path of fools. In the end, as the story reminds us, there is no escaping the order of things. We can only embrace life and all that goes with it. We do our best, regretting all that we fail to achieve, and vow to do better next time, knowing that we will fail again.

It is for that reason that we gather next Sunday night for the Yom Kippur service, to join our voices together and express our hope for the best — and our regret that it will not be. That is the power of the Kol Nidre prayer, whose recitation is the most solemn moment on the Jewish calendar: “All our vows, oaths, obligations and promises, we regret them. They will all come to naught. It is as if they never were.”

We will repent our vows, not because we intend to escape our obligations — as the Jews’ enemies have whispered about us for years — but because we know we will do our best to fulfill them and it will not be good enough.

We will gather together and cry out, shrouded in deathly white. We will regret our vows, because we were so certain that we knew what was right, but we did not. We were certain that a firm counterattack against our enemies would defeat evil and make us safer, but we are not safer. We were certain that dialogue and compromise would overcome hatred and bring peace, but we have no peace. We were certain that lower taxes would bring prosperity, that a strong safety net would end poverty and despair. But our certainties only led us astray. And so we regret our certainty. All our vows, oaths and certainties, our grand crusades and manifestos — they will be as naught. How can we know what the winter will bring? It is only September.

We at the Forward have issued our share of certain predictions and warnings in the past year. We’ve probably been right about a few and wrong about others. We ask our readers to accept our apologies for those times we’ve gotten it wrong, and to accept our wishes for a sweet and peaceful year ahead.






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