Don't Forget Regret ~ Kol Nidrei 5783/2022
Oct 6th 2022

H̱There were hooligans in Rabbi Meir’s neighbourhood who caused him a great deal of anguish. Rabbi Meir prayed to God that the hooligans should die.

Rabbi Meir’s wife, Beruriah, said to him: What are you thinking, babe? On what basis do you pray for the death of these hooligans? Are you basing your words on the verse from Psalm 104, where it is  written יִתַּ֤מּוּ חַטָּאִ֨ים ׀מִן־הָאָ֡רֶץ? Are you translating those words as  “Let sinners cease from the land” (Psalms 104:35)?

Sweetheart, are you serious? Do you actually understand this verse to mean that the world would be better if the wicked were destroyed? The word is not  ״חוֹטְאִים״ which means sinners. It is ״חַטָּאִים״ which means sins. Let their sins cease is what the verse teaches us. One should pray for an end to their transgressions, not for the demise of the transgressors. Give the guys a chance.

בְּעָא רַחֲמֵי עִלָּוַיְהוּ, וַהֲדַרוּ בִּתְשׁוּבָה.

Rabbi Meir realized his wife was correct. He immediately recognized that he should not have asked God to have them killed. He told Beruriah that she was right. He felt bad and had big-time regret about his original prayer.

Once again he prayed to God. “Ribono shel Olam, if only I hadn’t said what I said to you. I will never ask you to kill anyone ever again.” This time Rabbi Meir asked God to have mercy on the hooligans.

And what do you know? They repented.

Thank you Beruriah for schooling your husband. Thank you, Talmud for documenting this domestic argument.

Could you imagine if everyone who messed up was killed?

Covet your neighbour’s shoes—death!

Gossip—death! Death! Death! Death!

Steal a chocolate bar—death!

Miss a day of shaking lulav and etrog-death!

Come on. That is not how it works for us. That is not our system. We are the teshuvah people. We know we are not perfect. None of us are.

How often do you look back on your life and wish you had done things differently? In Daniel Pink’s book The Power of Regret, research showed that only one percent of respondents said they never engaged in such behaviour.

We are all חוֹטְאִים .

We all know we have been off here and there.

We all experience regret. While regret is an essential part of our experience for the next 24 hours, regret is also an essential component of the human experience.

People, all people,  regret a lot of stuff-family relationships, romantic choices, career moves, educational paths and more. (Pink p. 87) 

Regret are thoughts that begin with “If only I’d…”

  If only I’d actually delivered on the promise I made.

  If only I’d picked up the phone instead of sending an email.

  If only I’d paused to speak to that person instead of judging that person on their looks.

The challenge of if onlys is that they deliver discomfort and distress. If onlys make us feel worse. And that is ok. We are permitted to be uncomfortable today of all days. That is why many of us are not eating and drinking, or showering.

For the most part, regrets fall into four core categories:

1)  There are foundation regrets- our failure to be responsible, conscientious or prudent. These are the biggies. Pink describes these as the decisions we make that eventually cause the platform of our lives to wobble, and our futures not to live up to our hopes.[1]

2)  There are boldness regrets. This is when we regret that we didn’t take chances. Usually what haunts us is the inaction itself.

3)  There are moral regrets. These are when we behave poorly. These usually ache the most. These regrets sound like: “If only I’d done the right thing” These are more likely to involve actions than inactions.

4)  And there are connection regrets-fractures or unrealized relationships with spouses, partners, parents, children, siblings, friends, classmates, colleagues. These regrets arise when we neglect the people who help establish our own sense of wholeness[2].

Is this resonating for anyone?

אָשַֽׁמְנוּ. בָּגַֽדְנוּ. גָּזַֽלְנוּ... טָפַֽלְנוּ שֶֽׁקֶר.

We abuse/we betray/we are cruel/we destroy/we embitter/we falsify/we gossip….

On Yom Kippur, many of the actions of both the long and short confessionals fall into these four categories. How did the rabbis know about regret in this way?

Well, they knew some Torah. Especially the beginning of the Torah.

At first, when they opened the book, they encountered a lack of regret. When Cain killed Abel, we do not read about Cain regretting what he did. Rather, when God asked Cain where Abel was he famously responded: am I my brother’s keeper? And then he ran away to the land of Nod.

Two chapters later, the concept of regret is introduced in a major way. Immediately before we meet  Noach, we read[3]:

וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם ה כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ׃

And God regretted having made humankind on earth. With a sorrowful heart, God said, “I will blot out from the earth humankind whom I created—humans together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky;

 כִּ֥י נִחַ֖מְתִּי כִּ֥י עֲשִׂיתִֽם

for I regret that I made them.”

God ​regretted​ creating humanity. God was sad,  וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ God had a sorrowful heart. I find this remarkable. We may not like God’s solution. The flood was rather harsh. Nevertheless, God experiencing regret is a moment of Divine self-reflection. Even God has a sense of regret.

If regret is a divine emotion, and we are created in the divine image,  then it is something we should aspire to do too. Just like the Talmud instructs us (Sotah 14a) to follow God’s attributes in clothing the naked,  visiting those who are sick and consoling mourners, we should experience regret too. Deepening this idea, Heschel said: God has an image, and that is you. You may not make the image of God because you are the image of God. The only medium in which you can make God's image is the medium of your entire life, and that is precisely what we are commanded to do. So regret is divine and is part of Creation. And it is part of the way things are.

Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda, writing in Spain about 1000 years ago wrote that regret is a sign that the sin is disgraceful in [the sinner's] eyes…We ourselves can see in relationships between human beings, that when one who wronged his fellow shows regret for having wronged him, this will be the strongest factor for his fellow's granting him forgiveness.

Yom Kippur, this 25-hour journey is both about when we messed up in our relationships with people, and our relationship with God. Messing up with people is messing up with God. 

The Rambam dedicated an entire section of his Mishneh Torah to the rules of teshuvah, of repentance, of turning, of coming home to yourself.

He outlined four steps to teshuvah. If you have heard them already, it is worth repeating year after year.

1. We must recognize and discontinue the improper action.

2. We must verbally confess the action, thus giving the action a concrete form in our own mind.

3. We must regret the action. Evaluate the negative impact this action may have had on yourself or on others. Confession and reconciliation without regret are somewhat empty. We need to feel it on the inside in order to fix it on the outside.

4. We must determine to never repeat the action. Rambam instructs us to picture a better way to handle what we have done.

Easy, right?

This past summer Shai Davidai, an Israeli assistant professor at the Columbia Business School spoke about regret on the Atlantic’s  How to Start Over podcast series. This is what he said: 

When people have these regrets of action—when they regret doing something—they’re more likely to feel the hot emotions: anxiety and guilt. And those emotions are a call to action. They lead us to do something.

Whereas the other kind of regrets of inaction when we regret not doing something—we feel depressed or we feel sad, but that doesn’t really give us that prompt to step up and change the situation.

Professor Davidai might have studied Rambam. After all, he speaks about Rambam’s third and fourth teshuvah steps. We need regret and we need to change the situation and never do it again. 

As much as my summer bestie Idina Menzel, who spent part of her summer filming in this very building, sang in Rent Forget regret or life is yours to miss, Jonathan Larson missed the mark with that lyric. 

Regret should not have a stigma and it should not be seen as negative. We need it. Daniel Pink believes that regret has benefits. It can improve future decisions and it can boost performance.  And my rebbe Brene Brown channels Rambam when she said: to live without regret is to believe you have nothing to learn, no amends to make, and no opportunity to be braver with your life.

Our earlier rabbis were brilliant when they created the short vidui אָשַֽׁמְנוּ. בָּגַֽדְנוּ. גָּזַֽלְנוּ. They were also brilliant when they created the long list of Al H̱ets. I am not even talking about the fact that the Al Chets are listed alphabetically, I mean that the list even exists.

How can we not review those lists without feeling regret over some of them? There are things we have done, and had they not been listed for us on a page of a maẖzor we would not necessarily bring them up or think of them today. But they are there. On the page. And while we might not have done all of them, we have done some of them. To deny that we have done any of them is to deny both our humanity and the Divine spark within us. 

On Yom Kippur, we are fragile. We are vulnerable and the liturgy leads us to regret our words, our actions and our inactions. Some of us will regret more than others, but regret is tying each and every one of us together. It is what we all have in common.

We are acting like God when he saw the behaviour of  דור המבּול , the generation of the Flood. When we regret, we reach out of our comfort zone. And then we need to treat ourselves with self-compassion.

Dr. Kristin Neff, the world expert on self-compassion writes Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings—after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?

And that brings us to the choreography of the confessionals.  More from Dr. Neff: When we open the door of our hearts—love goes in and old pain comes out.

That is what we do when we bring our hands to our hearts during these Yom Kippur confessionals. We open the door to our hearts to start the process of teshuvah.

  to recognize

  to confess

  to regret

  to ensure we don’t repeat

The first al ẖet is עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָֽאנוּ לְפָנֶֽיךָ בְּאֹֽנֶס וּבְרָצוֹן:. We have sinned against You unwillingly and willingly. Ok, but listen to the second one! וְעַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָֽאנוּ לְפָנֶֽיךָ בְּאִמּוּץ הַלֵּבWe have sinned against you by heardening our hearts.

Our hearts need softening.

We should not bang. We should knock softly as if we are hesitantly knocking on the door of a beloved. Kol Dodi Dofek.

We should knock gently onto the outermost doors of our hearts to open them to teshuvah, to returning home. We should open our hearts to recognize what we did was wrong, to confess and name it, to regret it and then ensure we don’t do it again.

We all make mistakes. Even Rabbi Meir did. His wife surely let him know in the story I began with. And then he did proper teshuvah.

The confessionals of Yom Kippur, the recognizing, the confessing, the regretting and the commitment not to do it again, that is teshuvah. That is coming home to our innermost self.

Nashuva. We come home on Yom Kippur.

That is Ishai Ribo’s message in his song  לשוב הביתה

The time has come to wake up

To leave everything- to overcome

To return home- Not to search for any other place.

The time has come to change,

Even if we've missed a few stops,

You can get off, there's a train going back to the neighbourhood.

Everything is possible but if there's a will,

The searcher always finds,

Even if he finds himself somewhere at the far end.

The doors of Heaven never lock,

When a son calls, he is rescued,

Then Father in Heaven arrives,

אפילו שעשינו משהו רע

הוא מוחל וסולח, מוחל וסולח

מושיט ידו לעזרה ונותן ברחמיו

את הכח לתקן ולשוב אליו

Even if we've done something wrong,

He forgives and Pardons, He forgives and Pardons,

He stretches out His hand to assist, and in His mercy gives

The strength to fix, and return to Him

The time has come to regret, if you've already fled from the wrong,

If you once took, then now take in order to give.

As we journey through this holiest day of our year let’s be like Rabbi Meir and recognize our wrongs,  confess them, regret them  and then  ensure we don’t repeat, and do it all with compassion.

[1] Pink p. 97

[2] Pink p.98

[3] Genesis 6:5-7