Unravelling Regret

[Erev Yom Kippur Sermon, 5771-2010]

I regret to inform you that tonight we will be discussing regret. Regrets, grudges, and other artifacts that burden us, that impede passage through the corridors of our lives. We will also talk about death and forgiveness and knitting.

So I want to tell you about my Uncle Marvin. He was my only uncle, although I had plenty of great-uncles growing up and, baruch Hashem, have one still. But Uncle Marv was my only "real" plain-old uncle. He and I became especially close over the last decade, after my aunt had died and so had my father, who was my uncle's younger brother. Suddenly alone in the suburbs of Chicago, Uncle Marv moved to Las Vegas to be closer to his son and daughter-in-law. Meanwhile, my touring calendar began to include Las Vegas, and I ended up having many more opportunities to be alone with him than I'd ever had.

Despite his advanced age, he remained active, kinda crotchety and the source of an unflagging stream of jokes. He continued to come up with ideas and inventions. He worked in a grocery store right until he became sick with what was to be his final illness.

When I found out he had been hospitalized, I flew down. I spent two days sitting in his hospital room with him. In his thin and weakened state, he was nearly the spitting image of my father at the end of his life, which gave our time together an unearthly air.

Our first day together was all sweetness. He made jokes. We sang together - the standards: Gershwin, Irving Berlin. I was grateful to be there and he was happy I was there also. I sat and knitted at his bedside, a scarf intended for my sister. It kept my hands busy, and the click-clack of the needles filled the silent stretches with a note of purpose.

The second day was different. He was even weaker, and the joy seemed drained from the room. He still talked, but they were all stories of grudges and regrets: complaints about how his in-laws treated him. Disappointments about his marriage, about his career, about the move out west he should have done, about the businesses he should have started, about the many ways his life could have been better if people hadn't refused to believe in him.

I listened to this outpouring of ancient bitterness. My body tensed up, and as I knitted I felt my stitches getting smaller and tighter and harder to work with.

At some point I tried to change the tenor of the day by asking him to tell me a happy story. He told me briefly about his honeymoon. The birth of his children. Then he was flooded full-on with a childhood memory that clearly animated him. He'd been trying to sell enough newspaper subscriptions to win his first bike and he was one subscription short and finally Aunt Lucy bought a subscription she didn't need, despite the hard yoke of the Depression, so that he should get it, and the bicycle finally arrived, and he assembled it, and a neighbor sent him on his first errand to pick up something at the hardware store on Foster Avenue and when he came out of the hardware store his new bike was gone.

That was the happy story.

In a somewhat naïve, rabbinical student, do-gooder kind of way, I thought about the bedtime shema. We have a tradition, many of you know about it, that one should not die without forgiving and being forgiven. And since we never know when we will die, we recite a short vidui, a short confessional, each night along with our recitation of the shema. It goes, in part, like this:

Ribbono shel Olam! Master of the Universe. I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or upset me, or who has done me any harm; who has harmed my physical body, my possessions, my honor — anything pertaining to me; whether accidentally or intentionally, by speech or by deed, in this incarnation or any other; any human being. May no one be punished on my account.

My uncle, always easily identifiable as Jewish, sometimes picked on for it, always proud of it, was not an observant man. I don't know if he ever said the shema outside of a synagogue. Or inside one for that matter. So instead of offering an explicitly religious practice, I simply asked him, "Do you think it might be time to let go of these grudges, Uncle Marv? Maybe you can forgive these people. Maybe they were only doing their best."

His response, though startling, had the honesty of someone without much time left. "No," he replied, "never."

Jewish tradition has, as you imagine, something to say about this. We are encouraged to forgive. And more. The 16th Century Spanish Rabbi Moshe Cordovero wrote that you are to emulate God in your forgiveness - that is, after you forgive, you must hold that person closer, dearer than you did before the offense occurred. Maybe that is in fact what we do in our most successful relationships. Forgiveness giving way to intimacy. But, as a general pracitce, this really sounds like an impossibly tall order. Think of all old bosses and coworkers you'd still have to be close to.

Somewhere in the course of all of this, and I can't tell you whether it was on the sweet day or the bitter one, I made a serious error in my knitting. I missed a row and reversed the pattern. That is to say, the front side of the scarf became the back, and vice versa. So that the ragged, unfinished elements would be visible no matter how you wore the thing.

I flew home with my mess of scarf, saddened not only at my uncle's impending death, but at the fact that he seemed so burdened, so narrowed, so bitter, and that that would be the emotional and spiritual flavor of his death.

Being in a narrow place, and being released from it, is one of the great narrative tropes of our tradition. Certainly, our great collective story of liberation, the Exodus from Mitzrayim, is that story. Mitzrayim, interpretable in Hebrew as "the narrow places" gave way to a vast wilderness, a midbar, free of landmarks, a big sky country where God's voice could speak to us, midbar meaning not only "wilderness" in Hebrew but also "the place of speech."

Release from the narrow place is not just our collective story but also a reflection of our internal struggles and our desire for expansiveness. In Psalm 118, we famously say:

מן המצר קראתי יה ענני במרחב יה

From the metzar, from the narrow place, I called Yah.

I was answered in Yah's great expanse.

Poor Uncle Marv, I thought in that moment, stuck in the narrow place.

Back in my own home, I looked at the scarf. I couldn't continue with it. The error was too significant. And, looking at the tight stitches I could only think of my uncle's discontents, inscribed right into the wool. It would not be a fitting gift for anyone. I pulled out the needles and began to unravel it row by row. As I did this, I breathed deep and imagined his grudges being released into the wilderness, being offered up into the expanse. At last I was left with a ball of yarn, and lungs filled with good air.

My sister called. It was now her turn to be in Las Vegas at the bedside. I'd forewarned her that he was very bitter. She called to say that she didn't know what I'd seen, but that he was now peaceful and loving, with no sign of bitterness. A couple days later I called him on his cell phone. I didn't expect him to answer but he did. I'd heard he was barely talking at all anymore. But he took the lead. He reminded me of two daytrips he and I had made from Las Vegas - one to Red Rock Canyon, one to Mt. Charleston. Memories of our being in the midbar, in the vast places where God speaks. I told him that from my window at that very moment I could see the Pacific Ocean, entirely wrapped in fog. He said he'd like to see the ocean, and that maybe that could be our next trip together.

My uncle had somehow ended up in merchav Yah. He was in the great expansive place. How did this happen? I have no way of knowing. The pagan in me likes the thought that in unraveling the scarf I released his grudges for him. But in truth, all I know is that in unraveling the scarf I released them for me.

Did he revisit the idea of forgiving, as is done in the bedtime Shema? I couldn't know. But maybe, in the absence of formal words of release, crying out from the narrow place was enough. Maybe his telling me all those things was, in essence, his crying "Yah" from the narrow place. Whether by "Yah" we mean "God" or we mean the keening of a primal pain. Or an exhale of the hard stuff into the ether. Maybe his defiant statement of "no, never" was in fact his call from the narrow place. No. Never. Yah. And after that, mysteriously, he seemed to have breathed in expansiveness, and with it visions of canyon and mountain and ocean.

Maybe, in fact, calling out is enough. Even without kavanah, without an explicit intent to unburden ourselves of our grudges, our bodies and our spirits eventually know what they must do, despite ourselves. After all, the narrow place is magnetic. We know this. It is cozy and familiar and we do not always give it up easily. But, as the sages said,

יותר משהעגל רוצה לינוק הפרה רוצה להיניק

More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to nurse. In other words, God wants to give us kindness even more than we desire it for ourselves. Or in this case, this Universe wants us to be filled with expansiveness, even more than we want to give up the narrow place. Even when we say we don't want to give up the narrow place at all.

I'll never know exactly what happened for Uncle Marv. I do know, though, what happened for me. I became more convinced that I must always seek out and embrace expansiveness, the merchav Yah.

I do not want first to amass 80 years of grudges, or 70, or 50, or 10. I will do my bedtime Shema regularly or irregularly. At bedtime, or when I remember. I will use those exact words or others. Or I will use no words at all, but simply call out Yah from my narrow place. I will say Yah, yeah, yo, You, or simply breathe the hard stuff out. Yah.

Let us do that together. Now. Not on our deathbeds, but now. Let us find the people we're still, year after year, unwilling to forgive. The stories that still pain us so very long after they stopped being fact and became stories. Let us gather those things into our lungs and our throats and let us breathe them out of these narrow places together:

Yah. Yah. Yah.

And take a deep breath of merchav Yah - of holy expansiveness.

And let us say: Amen.

And by the way, when the day comes at last that you can't find me, I'll be on the beach with my uncle.