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Monday, October 4, 2010


Sermon For Yom Kippur, 5771.

What if you had only one day to live, and you were lucky enough to live it over and over? What if you had only one day to live and you were cursed to live it over and over? What would or would you not do with it? Imagine yourself able to live that one day any way you liked, with no concern for consequences or shame, for the next day you would awaken, and realize that it was the beginning of yesterday, an endless today. Imagine yourself unable to ever move forward with your life and learn from your mistakes, as you played that one scene of your life over and over again. Would you ever want to leave that playground of joyous moral depravity, unleashed from all moorings of conscience and guilt? Could you ever leave that prison of existential frustration and boredom, that supposed heaven of eternal youth that is actually a mask for hell?

These sound like questions of people who live entirely in the mind, rather than in the real world of everyday lives found in every new day. However, I want to suggest that they, in fact, reflect much deeper concerns about freedom and personal meaning that we human beings struggle with all the time. Do we ever get to do over the mistakes we make in our lives? Can we return to and relive parts of what we did and who we were, in order to redeem ourselves from mistakes? Are there ever second chances?

You probably already know that rabbis think about these questions a fair amount, especially around this time of year, when we come together with our congregants to face God and ourselves, and try to figure out the spiritual technology of repentance and growth. However my current interest in these questions derives only partly from Judaism and its holidays. I recently viewed–seventeen years late- a rather curious film that, since 1993, has become almost a cult classic: director, Harold Ramis’es Ground Hog Day. Citizen Kane the film is not; it is fairly light and stars the rather droll and goofy comedian, Bill Murray. However, upon closer inspection, the film possess an existentialist charm and insightfulness about second chances and freedom, by turning the questions I posed before into an interesting story. Murray plays Phil Connors, an egocentric, mean spirited, and small minded meteorologist who plods through the mental boredom and physical drudgery of his daily work at a local news station. The film opens with Connors leaving with his producer and his camera man on their annual trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to report on what he considers to be the soul deadening observance of Ground Hog Day: February 2, when Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog will inevitably see his shadow, thus predicting like clock work another six weeks of winter. Connors hates his job, hates his life, hates the people he works with, and hates the good folks of Punxsutawney who actually revel joyously in the celebration of their local culture and history. After a snow storm forces the TV crew to remain overnight in the town, Connors goes to sleep. Upon awakening and reawakening over what appears to be a succession of several days, he comes gradually to the conclusion that he has not woken up each time to a new day, but to the same day, February 2. Convinced at first that he is now truly imprisoned in a life not of his own making, he slowly recognizes that getting to do the same day over and over again actually liberates his darkest desires: he can be as destructive, rude, and sexually rapacious as he likes, because when he wakes up the next day, no one but him will remember what he has done. The next day is simply yesterday, rerun like a film clip played over and over again. As Connors’ indulgence in selfishness and stupidity wears thin, he attempts anything, especially death, which will allow him to escape the prison of the present day with all of its predictable sameness. Yet even death, the ultimate form of liberation, fails him in his quest to move time and his life forward: he can’t even die. As the film progresses, Phil Connors gradually begins to understand what will free him from eternity and allow him to grow. The endlessly replayed scene of his life on Ground Hog Day –symbolized of course by the endlessly boring life of the other Phil in the film- has one catch in it. He can change the scene day to day through how he behaves, not only for evil but for good. In a way that actually requires the skeptical viewer to set aside the film’s logic, he comes to know and affect positively the lives of the people of the town; he learns to treat the people he has abused more kindly; he figures out how to show his producer, with whom he is in love, that he can love her like a grown up who cares about people. Only when he finally gets this scene of his existence right, can Phil Connors break the surrealistic spell of his constant feedback loop of a life and go home.

Though Judaism recognizes the indestructibility of the soul after death, it also recognizes that we don’t literally get to live the same day or the same life over and over again. So, I ask: are the ideas found in this film Jewish ideas? From a Jewish perspective, is there no opportunity when we are alive to relive the past –as it were- so that we can reshape it? How irreversible are our actions and choices? Moses Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and philosopher, took on these vital questions in his monumental book, Laws of Repentance, which is found in his compendium of Jewish law. There, he lays out what Judaism says about personal change, and forgiveness: how we reach them, and our beliefs about human freedom that underlie them. Listen carefully to what Maimonides has to say:

There is a difference between repentance and complete repentance. What is complete repentance? A person finds himself in the same circumstances of wrongdoing as he had been in previously: he has the opportunity to commit the same sin, to do the same wrong, but he decides not to because he is commited to behaving differently, not because he is afraid of getting into trouble or because he lacks the physical strength to do so. For instance: two people have an illicit affair. They find themselves alone with each other at the exact time of year and in the exact place as in the past. They both still love each other and their physical desire for one another is just as strong. They can easily resume their illicit relationship, but they refrain from doing so.

Maimonides took his idea about complete repentance from earlier traditions found in the Babylonian Talmud, the master work of Jewish tradition and law. A close comparison of his writing with this original source reveals that, in fact, Maimonides chose what appears to be the most extreme explanation of complete repentance found in the Talmud. The seemingly more realistic definition of complete repentance found in the tradition is that a person may find him or herself in circumstances similar to the one in which he or she had done wrong, but that person nevertheless chooses to behave differently. But to be in the same place, at the same time of the year, wanting to do the same things with the exact same person that we know are wrong? What are the chances that two people would be so motivated by desire or even true love to do this? Clearly, I am being somewhat facetious. We all know perfectly well that life is messy and complicated. The human heart follows its most passionate desires, sexual or otherwise- whether they are right or wrong- and we are well equipped with very powerful tools of self deception and rationalization that make it easy for us to justify doing what we know we should not do. Maimonides knew this too. I think he chose precisely this version of the complete repentance idea to make an important point about making choices and about teshuvah, Hebrew for repentance. Like our hero, Phil Connors, we may find ourselves placed repeatedly in the same situations over whose outcomes we think, or want to think, we have no control. “What a dream I’m having, what a nightmare this is! How did I get here again?” we ask. Our pain is real enough, as we struggle with the old impulses, the persistent sadness, the old addictions, the self deceptions, whose acting out we know will get us nowhere fast. They may make us feel ok in the short term, but they contribute to our self destruction in the long term. Maimonides is inviting us to look at the most extreme possibilities in human behavior precisely to teach us that, if you find yourself going back to earlier times and behaviors, you may not be able to undo what you did then, but you can choose not to do it again, now. Like Phil Connors, you may find yourself in the same life scenes of your complicated past, but you can change those scenes, and you can change them for the better in the future. As Maimonides explains it, complete repentance is really hard to do, and it may cause you excrutiating pain. You deserve all the love, support and compassion from others that they have to give you, as you are working on doing it: but you can do it….

Except of course, for when you can’t… or you just plain don’t. Maimonides wrote with firm, rigid religious and philosophical commitment about the idea of human moral freedom, the bedrock of complete repentance. If you look in his book, Laws Of Repentance, you find him engaging in scathing attacks upon other philosophers, Jewish and non Jewish, who limit the extent of what we would call free will. For him, “a human being directs him or herself deliberately to any course of action or life that he or she desires.” End of discussion. Or is it? Remember that, in addition to being a rabbi and a philosopher, Maimonides was also a prominent physician. I am going to assume that as he saw patient after patient, Maimonides likely encountered and was affected by what any competent, sensitive physician encountered: plenty of pain, suffering and disease inflicted upon his patients by themselves and by others, repeatedly. He likely detected crippling physical and emotional traits in multiple generations of families; he likely recognized that they could not so easily be overcome, and that they affected people’s behaviors and lives; all of this hundreds of years before the world knew anything about DNA or the human genome, and well before the advent of psychoanalysis. And beyond Maimonides the rabbi, philosopher, and physician, there was yet another Maimonides: the one who understood from personal loss and grief that at times, our attempts to “just do it” or “just get over it” or “just decide to do the right thing” are fleeting shadows of wishful and na├»ve thinking. At the height of his leadership, fame, and intellectual acumen, when Maimonides could talk with easy confidence about the difficult but can-do path to complete repentance and personal change, his beloved brother and benefactor, David, died suddenly and tragically, leaving Maimonides impoverished and responsible for David’s bereft family. As Dr. Sherwin Nuland points out in his biography of Maimonides, the great rabbi revealed in some letters and even one medical treatise just how devastating and debilitating was his ensuing depression: we get a much more truncated, compassionate, limited picture from him of the capacity for a human being to make free, life affirming choices for personal growth. Certainly, we now know enough about clinical depression and so many inherited traits to understand well that their crippling influence upon a person’s behavior are not at all the same thing as a person’s free choice to continue to behave one way or another. However, my point is that Maimonides’ intense spiritual commitment to complete repentance and free moral choice was likely balanced in his own soul with his own personal and professional experiences that told him life is not so simple. Yes, we possess free moral choice, we can make decisions to stop making excuses for our behavior, and we can change; but in real life, there are things that hurt us or that are just beyond our control, partly or completely, that affect who we are and what we do. That is why in Jewish tradition, we talk about balancing judgment with mercy, both divine and human; that is why in Jewish law, you can ask sincere forgiveness from God and others even upon your deathbed, after a life of repeating the same ground hog day, day after day, and the forgiveness is there waiting for you. That is why I think Maimonides himself explicitly distinguished complete repentance and just plain old repentance. Listen now closely to another great teaching of his from the same Book, Laws of Repentance:

So, what is plain old repentance? The person who does wrong stops committing his sin, stops thinking about it, and he makes the firm mental commitment to never do it again, even to the point of making God, the One who knows all secrets, his witness to this effect. He expresses sincere regret for the past. Whatever he resolves in his heart he must also confess out loud.

Note what is missing in this teaching of Maimonides. A person looking to repent has to make every sincere effort, before God, himself, and humanity to do so. But nowhere in this passage did our teacher ever say that this process is some kind of an immunization against bad behavior down the road. Taking his cue from the Jewish tradition he followed and the imperfect, broken human nature he observed, Maimonides offered us a formula for breaking out of the cycles of pain we inflict upon ourselves and others that recognizes with compassion the power and the limits of our ability to change. Part one of that formula is all about apologizing and doing better towards those we have hurt. Part two –discussed by Maimonides elsewhere- is the often grueling, but healing response to repentance: forgiveness, of oneself and of others, even and especially when our hurt from the past and our often logical assumptions about people’s future tendencies fill us with anger and mistrust.

Yom Kippur ritualizes and concentrates this dynamic in one powerful day, whose echo we should listen for and respond to during the rest of the year. That is why we are here in prayer and here, living in the world. We are here because we are struggling to break the cycles –the groundhog days- of our behaviors and attitudes that we know hurt us and others; and we are here because we are struggling to forgive ourselves and each other for not always being successful at breaking those cycles. We are here because we are free, and God calls us to take responsibility for what we are and what we do as adults; and we are here because God knows well the nature of human nature, loves us all the more for it, and asks us to forgive ourselves and each other too. We are here because in remembering our loved ones at the time of Yizkor, we can appreciate them for their love and the good that they did, and forgive them for their imperfections, some of which may have scarred us; and we are here because in remembering them we know that we can learn from them what to do and what not to do with our lives, and act upon those teachings. Finally, we are here because our creation in God’s image always demands of us the dignity and courage of repentance; and we are here because being a loving reflection of God always grants us the opportunity to try over and over again, when our personal limits make us fail to live up fully to that reflection.

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