Regret, Kol Nidrei 5777

on Friday, 14 October 2016. Posted in Rabbi


On the metal gate of a park in New York City, Jordan Zaslow, a writer, director, producer, and comedian, hung an old-fashioned school blackboard and wrote on it, “Write your biggest regret.” The chalkboard stood in the middle of New York City for one full day. New Yorkers from all walks of life stopped and wrote down some of the most heart breaking responses: “Not saying I love you,” “not challenging myself,” “not applying to medical school,” “staying in my comfort zone,” “never going after my dreams,” “not staying in touch with friends,” “burning bridges,” “wasting time,” “not saying yes to things,” “all the self-hate I put myself through,” “not having kids before my dad died,” “not speaking up,” “not being a good spouse,” and on and on.

As the board filled with so many different stories, Jordan noticed that almost all of the regrets had something in common: They were about chances not taken, about words not spoken, about dreams not pursued. Very few people regretted something they had actually done.

While there’s a deep sadness to her observation, there’s also a universality to it: We all live with regrets.

Some are small. I remember walking through a very swanky part of San Francisco when I was a law student and seeing in a store window a hand knit sweater embroidered with the position of the planets in the sky on the very day that I was born. I couldn’t afford it and I didn’t buy it. And I regret it to this very day.

And of course, many more regrets are large, probably very similar to the ones written by the New Yorkers on Jordan Zaslow’s board. If I asked for a show of hands of those of you who had at least one major regret in your life, I can’t imagine that any one of you would keep two hands in your lap.

Even God, according to Jewish tradition, has regrets. Three of those regrets relate primarily to historic moments, and are better left for historians, as they have to do with the nationhood of Israel, not the individual. Three other regrets, however, relate to us person­ally: In the first, God regrets having created yetzer hara, the evil inclination.

Jewish tradition teaches that we all have yetzer hara and yetzer hatov – an evil and a good inclination. The challenge for us is to choose yetzer hatov more often than yetzer harav.

And yet, creating yetzer hara is an odd one for God to regret, for the midrashim teach that yetzer hara is a force to be harnessed and utilized for creativity.

“If it were not for yetzer hara, a person would not build a house, would not marry, would not procreate, and would not deal in business,” we learn in one midrash.[1] One contemporary rabbi adds that one should “use the fire of yetzer hara – such as desire and longing and anger and pride and jealousy – to inflame oneself to … do good deeds.”[2]

So why does God regret giving yetzer hara to humans? Because most of the time, we humans have failed to harness and use yetzer hara for just purposes. Instead, we have used it more often to bring terrible evils to our world.

In the second human-related regret, God says, “I regret having made Saul king, for he turned away from Me and has not carried out my commands.”[3] This is an understandable reaction – King Saul defies God’s instruction to kill Amalek, Israel’s eternal enemy, considered our enemy even today.

But Saul doesn’t refuse out of a preference to seek peace. No, Saul retreats from attacking the Amalekites after taking the best of the sheep, oxen, and lambs for himself. He comes home once he has a nice bounty, rather than fighting to the finish in order to spare Israel future horrors from Amalek.

It should come as no surprise that Saul’s son, Jonathan, does not inherit the throne after him; God instead chooses David, from a completely different line.

God’s other regret comes at the beginning of the Torah. Just before the story of Noach, God sees the wickedness of humans. The text reads, “God regretted the making of humans on earth, and God’s heart was saddened.”[4]

God’s heart was saddened, vayit-atzeiv el libo. The pain is so real, so very visceral. I immediately picture something like the “Keep America Beautiful” public service announcement from the 1970s with a Native American shedding a single tear after trash is thrown from the window of a car and lands at his feet.

Regret is its own emotion and brings with it a host of others. People who ruminate on their regrets are less satisfied with their lives and struggle in coping with negative life events. Thus, people are motivated to avoid it.[5]

For God, the emotion was sadness; for others, it can be fear.

There’s the wonderful teaching about Rav Zusya, the mystical Hasidic rabbi who lived in the Ukraine in the late 1700s. Each day, rabbinic students crowded to the beit midrash, the house of Jewish study, to learn from Rav Zusya.

One day, he did not appear at the usual hour. His students waited and, finally, rushed to his house to check on him. They found the rabbi in his bed, too ill to get up. He was dying and he was terribly upset.

His students were confused. “Haven’t you taught us that all living things must die, that it is natural? Why are you so upset?” “Yes, it is natural to die. All living things must die,” Rav Zusya said.

A young student tried to comfort him: “Then you have no need to be upset. You have lived a life with as much faith as Abraham. You have followed the commandments as carefully as Moses.” The rabbi summoned his strength to answer his students.

“Thank you,” he said. “But that is not why I am upset. If God asks me why I didn’t act more like Abraham, I’ll say because I am not Abraham. If God asks me why I didn’t act more like Moses, I’ll say I am not Moses.”

Then he paused and looked at his students. His eyes filled with tears. “I am upset because I have been wondering, if God asks me why I didn’t act more like Zusya, what then will I say?”

Rav Zusya regretted having not lived his own life to its full potential. Regret can do that – keep us stuck, unable to move on to the next step or stage. In Rav Zusya’s case, he was unable to let himself die, too agitated and upset with himself.

In a midrash about Joseph in Egypt,[6] the Rabbis asked why the biblical text says “Joseph’s brothers,” not “Jacob’s son” went down to Egypt to procure food during the famine. They answer:

“Because in the beginning they did not treat him like a brother, for they sold him into slavery; but in the end, they regretted what they had done. Every day they would ask, ‘When shall we go down to Egypt to bring our brother back to his father?’ So when their father told them to go to Egypt to get food, they were all as one, brothers, in their resolve to bring Joseph home.”[7]

Ever day the text reads. Every day they regretted their actions. Every day they asked themselves when they could try and undo what they had done. Every day. Every day. They were so stuck in the past, always looking back.

Remember the story of Lot’s wife? When God brings destruction to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his wife flee, and God tells them not to look back. But Lot’s wife does and is turned to a pillar of salt. Why? My theory is that she looked back and cried copious tears – so many tears, in fact, that she drowned in them. Once the tears dried up, all that remained was the salt. Living with regret, constantly looking back, can do that do us – drown us until what’s left no longer resembles who we are.

Most of us regret that we have regrets. We know they make us our own worst enemies. We obsess about past events in our lives and wonder whether or not we made the right decisions or acted in the best ways. We blame ourselves for mucking things up and not listening to our better self, intuition, or conscience. In hard times, when things aren’t going well, it’s very tempting to try to figure out what we might have done differently.

Regret is ready, willing, and able to have us second-guess our choices. Listen to the resulting self-talk: “Why didn’t I consult someone and get their counsel before I made that decision?” “Why didn’t I look at the big picture before turning down that trip?” “Why did I rush into that commitment before the relationship had gelled?” “If only . . .” “What if . . .”[8]

Until recently, the most common advice to someone who lived with regret was to “learn to let go.” Don’t let you past actions or inactions define you today or get in the way of living life fully. Therapists might say something like, “What’s the point in fixating on something that can’t be changed, other than to poison your confidence or prevent you from continuously moving forward? Stay in the moment and acknowledge that you cannot undo the past. You cannot go back and try again. What’s done is done and what’s gone is gone.

You are not living the movie, Ground Hog Day. So, you can beat yourself up or stop beating yourself up. The choice is yours.”

Great advice. But if we look at Joseph’s brothers, we are probably more apt to relate to their every day regret than to the therapist’s suggestion to “let it go.”

Today, experts encourage us to consider regret quite differently. The researcher and author Brené Brown used to hope that it was possible to live authentically without regret. But, as she recently suggested, she has experienced enough failure and vulnerability in her life to understand that there can be incredible power in harboring the complicated emotion of regret. “I didn’t want to believe this,” she says, “but I have come to learn that regret is a fair – but tough – teacher.”

When I read this, I had to wonder – “what kind of teacher?” And here is what Brené Brown says: “Regret is a function of empathy,” Empathy brings people together in true connection and is an “antidote to shame.” Shame drives people apart in isolation. Failure is the starting point, breeding both shame and then regret.

If we focus on the link between regret and empathy, as Brené points out, we see that empathy can open the door to vulnerability, allowing us to find the courage to fully acknowledge our mis­takes as mistakes, as things we now know that we would change.

This why Brené believes in the teaching power of regret and also why she finds it so worrisome when people dismiss regret with a wave of the hand. She says, “When people say, ‘I have no regrets,’ I think, ‘That seems dangerous. … Do you not look back, ever, and say, ‘If I had this to do over again, I wish I would have done it another way?’”

Brené Brown isn’t the only researcher reframing the emotion of regret. Social scientists with the National Institute of Health have come to a similar conclusion. What they have found is that people who have a healthy attitude toward regret use it to guide future behavior.[9]What do people think about the emotion of regret? Recent demonstrations of the psychological benefits of regret have been framed against an assumption that most people find regret to be aversive, both when experienced but also when recalled later. Two studies explored lay evaluations of regret experiences, revealing them to be largely favorable rather than unfavorable. Study 1 demonstrated that regret, but not other negative emotions, was dominated by positive more than negative evaluations. In both studies 1 and 2, although participants saw a great deal of benefit from their negative emotions, regret stood out as particularly beneficial. Indeed, in study 2, regret was seen to be the most beneficial of 12 negative emotions on all five functions of: making sense of past experiences, facilitating approach behaviors, facilitating avoidance behaviors, gaining insights into the self, and in preserving social harmony. Moreover, in study 2, individuals made self-serving ascriptions of regret, reporting greater regret experiences for themselves than for others. In short, people value their regrets substantially more than they do other negative emotions.Keywords: Regret, Counterfactual, Affect, Emotion

In fact, they discovered in one study that regret was seen to be the most beneficial of twelve negative emotions in five different areas: making sense of past experiences, facilitating behavior when approaching a situation, facilitating behavior when avoiding a situation, gaining insights into oneself, and preserving social harmony.

In a second study, those people who acknowledged having regrets reported greater regret for things they did or didn’t do than for things that others did or didn’t do. Overall, people valued their regrets substantially more than they did other negative emotions.

This is all nice and good, but how do we use regret as a teacher to help us move forward?

First, be kind to yourself. Don’t focus only on the bad that came from your actions or inactions. Look for the good, too. Joseph in the Torah could have lived with regret while he was in Egypt – regret that he treated his brothers poorly back in Canaan or regret that he didn’t fight back when they sold him into slavery. But Joseph didn’t. He has been extolled for thousands of years for saying to his brothers, “This wasn’t my doing and this wasn’t your doing. It was God’s. God send me ahead to Egypt so that when the famine came, I could save you all from starvation.”

Try to be like Joseph. Did anything good come out of the encounter that you regret? Alexander Graham Bell once said, When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.

Second, if nothing good came out of the encounter you regret, then remind yourself that much good has come out of other things you have done in your life.

Your existence cannot be summed up by those moments that you regret. You are deeper, more complex, and more beautiful than that.

Third, rather than focus on what you regret in life, consider the things for which you are grateful. Judaism teaches us that we are to say 100 blessings per day, most of them blessings of gratitude. Take this to heart and give thanks for the many, many good choices and decisions you have made. This will help you to move beyond the self-blame and depression that comes from being stuck in regrets.

Fourth, be in the moment, this moment. Rabbi Stuart Grant suggests:[10]

Draw a circle around where you are sitting right now.   The religious perspective would say that you are exactly where you should be at this moment, dealing with exactly what you should be dealing with, and connecting with exactly those people with whom you should be connecting.  Your whole life has been preparing you for this very moment. Everything that you have gone through and have learned can now be put to use in the next few seconds.   All the regrets you may feel are part of what you were suppose to learn up until right now. The exciting reality, however, is that at this very moment you have the opportunity to make a free will choice as to what you are going to do in the next few seconds and for the rest of your life.

Using Torah as your moral guide and moving in the direction that you believe is toward your greatest growth (… and will help other people), you move toward your constantly emerging life purpose.

Let’s return to Jordan Zaslow’s blackboard. As the day wore on and a group stared at the blackboard – a board filled with pain that reflected back to them their own pain – Jordan gave each of them a wet cloth to erase what was written. One woman said, “a clean board – it feels where I want to be, where I want to go.” Another said, “a clean slate … it means there is possibility.” They then erased the board’s invitation, “Write your biggest regret,” and replaced it with the words, “clean slate.”

From a clean slate, we are given the opportunity to start afresh. The board’s erasers did not forget that they had regrets; rather, they took charge not to allow their regrets to hold them back.

Ken y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will for us all. Shanah tovah.

[1]Bereshit Rabbah 9:7

[2]Rav. Israel Lipshutz, Tiferet Yisrael on B’rakhot 9:5

[3]I Samuel 15:11

[4]Genesis 5:6

[6]Genesis 42:3

[7]Genesis Rabbah 91:6

[8]These two paragraphs are from Reframing Regrets, by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat.


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