Can we live a life with “no regrets”—I would answer, “If we have acted on our regrets.” One of the first steps in atonement, after acknowledging whatever it is we are atoning for, is a deep sense of regret. In this third week of Elul we must feel our regrets but not become stuck in them.
How do we feel regret—deeply and fully? My Talmud teacher, Rabbi Soloveitchik delivered a talk on repentance each year and many have been placed into writing. One year he drew the following analogy between our relationship with regret about ‘sins’ and our regret about not valuing relationships with loved ones. He asks:
“How many near and dear ones did we have whom we did not appreciate fully when they were with us? We realize what they meant to us only after they are gone and their image has become faded an unreal. One does not know the true meaning of grief if they fail to be tormented by such regret. The essence of mourning consists in pain of “would that I could”—if I only could, I would make amends now for what I didn’t do (or say) when I could have, but alas, my beloved one is no longer here.”
The Hebrew term for a mourner is Avel (mourning is called Avelut) and the same three Hebrew letters (Alef-Bet-Lamed) spell the word Aval which means ‘but’, with a connotation of ‘if only’. So the Avel-mourner is a person who is in the question of ‘if only’—a question soaked with the dampness of regret.
Rabbi Soloveitchik goes on to draw the analogy to our relationship with God and sin: “Mourning by the sinner over separation from the Holy One, is like mourning over the death of a beloved.”
We watched the film Atonement this week as part of our film series on repentance. In this story the penitent is denied asking for forgiveness as the loved ones she offended died. She is both mourning her sister and unable to resolve her regrets—having harmed her sister and her sister’s lover.
I would add to my teacher’s reflections on regret that our regret is awareness of how we have separated ourselves from ourselves—how we did not maximize the opportunity of a relationship or the opportunity of our own lives.
Ian McEwan, the author of Atonement, himself an atheist, supposes that atheists have as much conscience, possibly more, than people with deep religious conviction. Perhaps he is right, but his concluding statement is what floored me. “Atheists,” he suggested, “have the same problem of how they reconcile themselves to a bad deed in the past. It’s harder though when you don’t have a god to forgive you.”
Regret then is a necessary step as we stand before man and God and mourn the choices we have made—a deep and full regret that is the impetus for living a life with no regrets.