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Kol Nidre 5771

Kol Nidre – 5771 “Regrets Only” September 17, 2010

In 1969 I entered the toughest English class in Ramsay Jr. High School in South Minneapolis.  The teacher, Miss Allen, was known as a battle-­axe.   That is the old, politically incorrect term for a woman who was mean and cantankerous. My brother Rick had taken her class the year before and he didn’t even taunt me about it. He was dead earnest. He said, “Jamie, this is a teacher you don’t want to mess with.”

But I thought, how bad could it be? Ninth grade English? Come on, you do the assignments and, if you write well, you get good grades. But, no. Miss Allen was a stickler for mindless detail.  If you wrote your assignment in pencil, it was wrong, because it had to be in pen. If you made a mistake in pen, it was wrong, because it was sloppy, even if it was right. You were supposed to have a bottle of liquid paper.  You wiped the line clean and then wrote the right answer over it.  Only then did you get credit.

Miss Allen handed us a reading list the Xirst day and said we were to read 15 books from it on our own throughout the year. There was one book whose listing was completely blacked out. We wondered what it was. Any guesses? I then looked at it from underneath and could read upside down and backwards the words, “Catcher In The Rye, by JD Salinger.”

Heedless of my brother’s warning, my hand shot up. Miss Allen looked down at her seating chart, stared at me like I was a bug and said, “Yes, Mr. Gibson?” I asked in my best, innocent voice, “Miss Allen, why is Catcher In The Rye blacked out?  Why can’t we read it for our assignment?

The temperature in the room blazed in an instant. Color rose in her cheeks. She stared at me hard, really hard. Then she said, “Reading Catcher In The Rye is forbidden! It is tripe and Xilth and my students will not read it, even outside of my class! It is not Xit for a senior, much less 9th graders like you.  Do you understand, Mr. Gibson!?”  I gulped.

As you can imagine, I struggled in her class. Literature, which I loved, became a mine Xield. When she caught anyone of us making a mistake diagramming sentences (does any one remember diagramming sentences?) I swear she cackled with glee. Points were not to be earned, rather to be deducted. Flat writing, without color or nerve, was rewarded, as long as there were no stray pen marks on the page.

There was one leniency she gave us.  She taught us Xirst thing after lunch and she allowed us to come into her class early.  That way we could be in our seats, ready to go when the bell rang. So we did – and sometimes we took our lunches, although that was strictly forbidden.

One day, I was eating an apple and a couple of us started throwing the half-­eaten core around the room playing “apple-­baseball.” Norma Schroeder came into the room and looked at us, horriXied. “She’s coming!” At that moment I was the one holding the apple core. It was like playing hot potato and musical chairs at the same time.

I looked at the front of the room where there was a sliding, pull down screen for the Xilms we never watched. As the door knob jiggled, I tossed the apple core up over the top of the screen. It nestled right between the lower edge and the wall. You could just make out the nub of it. I stared at it all class long. I just was knew Miss Allen would see it. I knew that was the day I was going to Xlunk 9th grade English.  But she didn’t see it.

Each day I came to class and saw more and more of the apple core as it dried up. Each day I expected Miss Allen to look at it, scream, and heap punishment on me. But the core just sat there, accusing me warning that the day of judgment was coming and soon.

Two months went by. Then one day Miss Allen announced we were going to watch a Xilm. She reached behind her and pulled down the screen and plop went the apple core. It wasn’t much to look at anymore, it was two months old.  But Miss Allen went and examined it like it was a dead reptile.

“Who did this?” she asked menacingly. I didn’t say a word. I thought I could wait her out. She couldn’t punish us all, could she? It turned out she could. Miss Allen announced that she would give everyone zeros for the week in her grade book if someone didn’t confess.

So I started to raise my hand, when a kid from across the room raised his Xirst!  He said he did it.  He got the zero for the week.  I was stunned.

Later, I asked the other kid why he took the rap.  He said, “I dunno.

Someone had to, I guess. It’s not like I’m getting an A in this class, anyway.” Very junior high.  He walked away and we never talked about it again.

A minor incident, of course. But, I wonder, why has not my regret over this kid taking the rap for me simply evaporated over time? Forty-­one years later, I remember that I never set things right with him. I hope that he has gone on to enjoy a good life.  But I still regret how he took the fall for me.

Regrets. They stay with us long after the events that caused them. They have a half-­life measured in decades. Regrets for what we’ve said and haven’t said.  Regrets for failing to stand up for someone or for getting involved in what was not our business in the Xirst place. Regrets for making excuses rather than making amends.

Think of it. If regret over desiccated apple cores lasts so long, how much the more so our regret for what we have done that caused real harm to those we care for, as opposed to 9th grade English teachers?

Most of the time, we resist the nagging itch of regret without much effort. We are expert in tossing it off, making an excuse, forgiving ourselves, blaming it on circumstance. Even when we know we’re at fault, we say it wasn’t really our fault. Someone had it coming. Or it was out of our hands. We toss off the oppressive weight of blame the way we toss a shirt onto the laundry pile.

Why? It makes us so uncomfortable to feel blame, even when we have earned it. It oppresses us, so we get out from under it. It belies our self-­image as good, fair and decent people. So we comfort ourselves, saying that since our intentions are good, we must not be guilty.

The price of such self-­justiXication, though, is high. We become expert at fudging. We slip and we slide, we claim amnesia. We see ourselves as victims instead of perpetrators. We become used to fooling ourselves, which only makes it easier to do it again in the future.

The physicist Richard Feynman famously said, “The most important thing in life is not to fool yourself. Unfortunately, you are the easiest one to fool.” We fool ourselves endlessly. We say “It’s not my fault. I didn’t mean it. They don’t understand.” All to escape the harsh light of self-­examination.

And yet, that is what this night is all about, isn’t it? Looking at our acts and accepting the rebuke from within. Taking the sting of regret and transforming it into something good. An apology. A recompense.  A promise to do better.

Tonight, if we are honest, if we are to live up to the demand of Kol Nidre, we will let ourselves feel the full weight of regret, an awesome sadness, for words and acts and silence and betrayal.

We regret how we have acted toward those with us tonight, our families sitting next to us, or just a few seats away, how we have abused their trust and their love.

We regret what we have done to dear friends and acquaintances whom we have cut to the quick with a thoughtless word or insensitive story.

We especially ache with regret for slights and betrayals against those with whom we can never reconcile, for they have died. It hurts to know that we will never close that circle or Xill that gap.

Tonight, the hourglass of time is turned yet again. As Rabbi Larry Freedman famously said from this pulpit just a few years ago, not all of us will be sitting in this sanctuary next Yom Kippur, not all of us will be granted a year of blessing in the Book of Life. None of us is immune. None of us is guaranteed a seat at next year’s Kol Nidre.

And so we ask tonight – are you willing to carry the burden of regret another year without acting upon it?

Are you willing to risk a friend or a family member dying without channeling regret into resolve and repair?

Teshuva, repentance is not about making our mistakes disappear. It is about making them whole. As Rabbi Larry Kushner says, it is about looking deep within and Xinding the holy spark, even in our hurtful words and acts and letting that spark arise and move us to live and act differently.

In a recent essay, Rabbi Donniel Hartman lamented the fact that even Yom Kippur rarely changes one’s behavior. It is an intense immersion in the waters of honesty, but when we emerge at the end of the day, we dry off and go on with our lives as before.

What does it take to knock us out of our comfort zone? Many years ago, I suggested that such lasting personal change only comes as a result of fear, tragedy or great longing.

Fear and tragedy will Xind us, no matter who we are.  We will lose people we hold dear. We will suffer disease and accident. But these doorways to repentance clang shut with regularity in front of our eyes. Too often we feel pangs, not possibilities.

Which leaves us with just longing to push us from regret to resolve and on to repair of our relationships. Longing can push us past ourselves and our shame. We can move from regret to repentance if we long for it more than our self-­regard.

For what do you long tonight?

To be able to speak to a son or daughter without bringing up his Xlaws? To be able to love your mother without giving up your integrity by simply giving in to her every wish because of guilt?

For what do you long this night?

To be able to forgive a sibling who has taken advantage of you over and over again through the years?

To tell your aging father that you are more than his personal attendant?

For what do you long this night?

To share your fears about your adult child’s future without being shut out for doing so?

To admit to a friend that you betrayed his or her conXidence and that you still lose sleep over it?

For what do you long this night?

To be embraced, loved and accepted for who you are, warts and all? Even by those you’ve wronged?

You are not alone.  We all do.

If that is what we long for, then our task over the next 25 hours is clear: To express our regret here tonight and to transform it into a resolve tomorrow, and begin to repair the damage we have done. Tonight we can own our regret and express it to those we have hurt in person, by telephone, e-­ mail, Facebook, or tweet. It is the beginning of the process we call t’shuva: Regret, Resolve, Repair.

And we should not be thrown by the fact that we have done things worthy of regret.

We all do.

There was a recent Xilm called “Something The Lord Made” about a white surgeon from the South, Dr. Alfred Blalock, and Mr. Vivien Thomas, an African-­American surgical technician. Dr. Blalock was a brilliant and bold surgeon and Mr. Thomas was a whiz at creating mechanical devices, like clamps that made open heart surgery possible in infants.

But Dr. Blalock was a man of the deep South, and the hospital they worked at was Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland, a southern state, still Xilled with the legacy of Jim Crow racism into the 1950’s and 60’s.

In the Xilm, at the end of his life, Dr. Blalock acknowledges his remorse and regret over how he treated Vivien Thomas. In one of the last scenes he said to Vivien, “If we live long enough, we do things we live to truly regret.”

We all do.

The question is: On this sacred night, will you own your regrets and let them move you to resolve and Xinally to repair?

Say the words, “I regret that I…and Xill in the blank. Try it. Say it. Make it real. Speak the words. Make the sounds. Hear your own voice admitting regret. After saying the words aloud to yourself, try saying them to someone else.  And resolve to repair what you can.

This can work.  I know this for a fact.

In my old congregation in Wausau, Wisconsin, there was an amazing old man named Fred Platner. He was a Holocaust survivor who escaped the Nazi roundups and Xled to the forest to Xight with the partisans. He survived, minus part of one ear and one and half Xingers.

After making it to America, he was mentored by a family in the scrap metal business in Wausau, and he worked there for decades. He was the bravest, kindest, most compassionate man I’d ever met.

He was a proud Jew who, after the Holocaust, never missed an opportunity to ease suffering anywhere it was found. When it came to walkathons to raise money for worthy causes, he simply went around to everyone he knew and collected money to sponsor him, which he turned in, having never showed up for the walk.

I once asked him if that was ethical. His eyes widened and he said, “I walked hundreds of miles in Europe during the war. I’m just collecting the tzedaka on it now.”

Fred developed liver cancer and had no reasonable hope of a cure. He moved out to California to be with his daughter where he began the desperate, hopeless regimen of laetrile, an extract made from peach pits.

During his last winter, I went to a rabbinic meeting in San Diego. Fred was staying about 25 miles from the hotel. I called him and he was so weak on the phone. He asked if I could come see him.  I hemmed and hawed.  I was there for business, after all.  I didn’t even have a car.

In the end, I did not go. I made a thousand excuses. And he died. And yet, at the funeral, Fred’s family was incredibly kind towards me, though I felt terrible guilt for not renting a car and going to see him. Afterwards, his daughter handed me a package and said, “Fred wanted you to have this.”

It was an old, old Hebrew Bible, published in 1716, 16 years before George Washington was born.  This is it (show Bible…).

I resolved to channel my guilt into something I knew Fred would like. I had his Bible re-­bound by Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof, z’l, so it would be sturdy enough to be used in my library. In fact, every Temple Sinai bar and bat mitzvah student reads his or her Torah portion aloud from this Bible. This connects them not only to their past, but also to Fred, whose story I tell frequently.

Over the last 23 years more than 600 of our students have heard Fred’s story of heroism during the war and courage in the face of illness. I have tried not to get stuck on regret, but have resolved to repair my not being there for Fred by making him alive for a generation of American Jews.

Even this does not erase my guilt over not visiting Fred in his last days. But I have learned from my error. I now drive great distances to visit the sick of our congregation and to grieve with families when death wins in the end.

And when I do, Fred, that magniXicent, loving, compassionate man, walks into the room with me.  And in my ear he whispers, “Jamie, let’s dry some tears.”

Do you hear him? Listen! Fred is whispering to you, too. He is saying, “Let’s dry some tears tonight.”

Tears of remorse and regret. Transform them into acts of resolve and repair, of faith and love. It is why we are here. The only reason we are here at all.  The only reason we are here at all.

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784