- Rabbi Leder
Kol Nidrei 5783
Rabbi Steve Leder
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles
If you ask most people what they regret most in their lives, their answers might surprise you. Very often, they don’t regret something they did, but something they didn’t do.
Most of us think forgiveness is all about the things we have done wrong. But there are actually two kinds of sins we are called to consider tonight. Yes, there are our sins of commission, the things we did to hurt others and ourselves. But we are here to tally something else too. Our sins of omission. The sin of the path we didn’t take because of fear, the times we didn’t show up, didn’t help, the words we didn’t speak.
When I asked my friend Cindy about her greatest regret, she said, “Mama died alone in that crappy little hospital room in Newton, Mississippi. She should have died with all of us with her, holding her as she held us for all of our lives. We should have been there to soothe her the way she soothed us, we should have been there to comfort her. My entire adult life, Mamma would stand outside of her home when my sister and I would leave her to go back to our lives. She would stand at the end of the gate and wave to us until we couldn’t see her anymore. We should have been there…”
Almost no one knows one of my deepest regrets. I have forgiven myself for it because it happened when I was only a teenager. I was working at a summer camp and a man who was five or six years older than I and to whom I reported, made a sexual advance toward me. This happens to teenage boys more than most people realize and, believe me, as most women can tell you, you know when it is happening. I got away and said…nothing. More than 30 years later, a rabbi called to ask me about that same supervisor, telling me that a woman in her congregation who also worked at the camp that summer told the rabbi the man had raped her. I have always wondered if I had had the courage to say something at the time about what he did to me, whether or not that vulnerable young woman would have been spared.
I have recent regrets too. I regret not speaking out when then-President Trump said there were good people on both sides at the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville. It wasn’t fear that held me back, it was sillier than that…I was busy, I had nothing to add to the conversation, and after all, wasn’t his sin obvious?
In American law, the words “innocent” and “bystander” go together with ease. In the Torah, there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. We have a sacred duty to each other. The answer to Cain’s question when he asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is “Yes, you are.”
Our families and friendships can only exist if we care about each other. One of the saddest things I hear on the couch of tears in my office is when a husband or wife, or both come to tell me they have become roommates or less. They live together, but have no life together. Their love has dried up, evaporated from neglect—in a sense they have stopped dating, stopped sharing, stopped loving, stopped caring. But, if anyone asks, they will say they are, in a word, “fine.”
It’s like that sad joke where a husband says, "There's nothing I wouldn't do for my Sarah, and there's nothing Sarah wouldn't do for me. And that's how we go through life - doing nothing for each other."
Then there’s Jonah, whose story we will read tomorrow afternoon, who committed one of the most famous offenses of omission in history. Jonah hears God’s voice, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and call out against it.” Jonah boards a ship and flees in the other direction. When God calls, when people are suffering, Jonah is asleep below deck. How can you sin while you are sleeping? Easy. Jonah is an expert in the sins of omission.
Here's some good news: When we don’t miss the opportunity to behave ethically and morally—when we’re kind, truly kind--we help God do the same. You heard me right. There is a remarkable view in Judaism that it is not God who influences us, it is we who influence God. God depends on us.
Here is how the prayer book puts it:
“Just as the shadow of a person does whatever that person does, so, too, does the divine do what we do. Divinity is the shadow of human action. If we save a human life, so too does God; if we decide to end a human life, God does also. At some level, the utterly transcendent divinity is right at hand, for the divinity we hope to worship is a shadow of ourselves, our best parts and our worst.
If you want to see God save the innocent, you need to get off the couch and save the innocent. If you want to see God feed the hungry, you need to feed the hungry. If you want to see God stand by while the innocent suffer, all you need to do is stand by and do nothing yourself.”
In other words, to be a Jew is to act on the choices we have before us with love; to allow our courage and compassion to emerge; to live and die without so much regret for what we could have done.
Do you want to know the worst thing about our sins of omission? The most tragic life mistakes of all? The fun we could have had. The ice cream we could have eaten, the day we could have taken off, the pool we could have jumped into, the trail we could have hiked, the flight we could have taken, the waves we could have surfed, the times we could have danced in the kitchen, the love we could have made, and the “I love yous, I really love yous” we could have said.
“We will be called to account,” says the Talmud, “for every permissible pleasure we could have enjoyed on earth, but did not.”
The psychologist William Marston asked 3,000 people this brief question: "What do you have to live for?" He found 94% of his respondents were simply enduring the present while they waited for the future. They were waiting for something to happen--waiting for the right man or the right woman; waiting for children to grow up; waiting to pay off the mortgage; waiting for a vacation; waiting for retirement; waiting to get involved in the community; waiting to learn some new skill or hobby; waiting, waiting; waiting. Ninety-four percent of us waiting, while each new day passes us by. Ninety-four percent of us sinning by omission.
Some of you emailed me to ask why my right wrist was bandaged on Rosh Hashanah. Before I tell you, let me say that I am totally fine and one of the luckiest people you will ever know. Late Tuesday afternoon, five days before Rosh Hashanah, I was heading east on 6th street to speak to a group in the Irmas Pavilion. I was keeping up with traffic, listening to NPR, thinking about my speech and then, boom! In a nanosecond I was spun around, airbags deployed, and after the crash, an eerie silence. A young woman ran the red light on Highland, there were no screeching brakes, no skid marks, just impact. Had she hit me three feet closer to my door, I do not think I would be here right now.
Fourteen years ago, I checked out of the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai and flew home. The day after that, terrorists attacked the Oberoi hotel, lined up every Israeli and American, and executed them.
I have escaped death many times…most if not all of us have. It's true, what the prayer book says…in any given moment, any given year, you really never know…who by water, who by fire, who shall live and who shall die?
I had no idea my last conversation with my dad was my last conversation with my dad. One visit with him in the nursing home and we could speak with and understand each other, by the next, he had stopped speaking for the rest of his life. Tonight is my dad’s fourth yahrzeit. I wonder what I might have said to him if I had fully appreciated the gravity of that last real conversation we ever had. I am sure I would not have omitted so much.
We all know the legend the rabbis wrote for us for tonight. The idea that there is a scale in heaven for each of us and on it, our deeds of the past year both good and bad are weighed. Whichever way the scale tips will determine our destiny in the year to come. But how does one weigh the absence of something; what is the weight of what never happened, was never said, never done?
What I have learned after so many years of listening to you and to my own heart, is that we will regret most what we could have done. And when people come to see me to talk about regret, some sin of omission, I remind them of what I often tell myself when I think about my own failures.
“I don’t know about you, but personally, I have given up all hope of a better past.” Or as my childhood friend Neal’s grandfather, who survived the Holocaust, used to say, “What was, was. What is, is. And that’s that!”
Today is not about feeling awful for what we didn’t do in the past. Today is about hope for a better future. All of Judaism is about hope for a better future. We don’t have to be spectators in our own lives. We can get off the phone. We can get off the couch. We can have fewer regrets. But we don’t have forever. What are you waiting for?
Ninety-four percent of us waiting while Mamma dies in that crappy little Mississippi hospital room alone, while others suffer because we didn’t speak up, while the ice cream stays in the freezer, while our marriages and our friendships suffer from neglect, while the music goes undanced to, and our I love yous remain unspoken.
If Covid taught us anything,
if our regrets teach us anything,
if we can remember that Teshuva means to turn
and if we can turn only one thing, one direction, one aspect of our being
to give us a more beautiful and meaningful world, a more beautiful and meaningful life,
let it be the power to turn the fear within us that so often leads to regret,
that so often says “Wait—Don’t,”
into the liberation, and the sacred power of “Don’t wait!”