judaism · theology

We are not our past mistakes.

We are not our past mistakes.

Rabbi Meir was the greatest rabbi of his generation. He learnt from both the great masters of Mishnah, Akiva and Eliezer. He was ordained a rabbi by his teacher, Elisha ben Abuyah, younger than any of his contemporaries and gave more rulings than any of them.[1]

Meir was a great rabbi, but his wife, Beruriah, was even greater. She once learnt 300 rulings from 300 different sages in one day.[2] She was the only woman to be credited with making religious decisions. Sometimes she even overruled her husband. 

One day, Beruriah came in on her husband and heard him praying. He had been harassed by local hooligans. Rabbi Meir cried out in supplication to God: “Sovereign of All Worlds, I wish You would kill those bandits!”

Beruriah was shocked. “What are you thinking?!” she demanded. Meir looked surprised: “I am only asking for what it already says in the Psalms – let sinners disappear from the earth and the wicked be no more.”[3]

“That’s not what the verse says,” retorted Beruriah. “It says: let sins disappear from the earth, not sinners. The wicked won’t just disappear because someone wishes them away. They will only disappear because they will repent and give up their sins. The wicked do not disappear because God takes vengeance on them, but because God has mercy on them.”

From then on, Rabbi Meir changed his prayer. Instead, he said: “May God have mercy on them and may they change their ways.”[4]

God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but wishes only that they will turn from their evil ways and live.[5]

That is the message at the heart of this season. This is the last Shabbat in Elul, opening the last week of this month of repentance. Tonight, in Ashkenazi custom, we begin the practice of Selichot – reciting penitential prayers in the evenings. They are intended to help us acknowledge where we are going wrong so that we can correct our ways. 

As we approach the end of the year, we also approach the end of the Torah. We have been on a journey through the wilderness, and God has journeyed with us. 

When our story began, God wanted to destroy humanity. At the start, God flooded the world in anger at our violence. At Babel, God struck down the nations for our defiance. At Sodom, too, God destroyed a city for failing in its moral obligations. 

Now, at the end of the narrative, God no longer wishes to destroy us, but instead promises to rescue us. We are told that if we try to return, God will bring us back in love. No matter how far we think we have gone, God can find us and return us. No matter how much of an outcast you imagine yourself to be, God will be in your corner.[6]

That is the essence of teshuvah. Although often translated as repentance, it really means returning. It is the practice of becoming who you already are. At core, you are good, honest and faithful. If you do wrong, you are departing from your natural state. 

Contrary to the Christian doctrine that preaches we are born in a state of original sin, Judaism teaches that we are constantly reborn in a state of moral purity. Each morning, God sends us back our soul, renewed and ready to do good.

God has already given you the greatest gift you could need to face up to your flaws: you have another day. You have the chance to get up this morning and correct what you did wrong. You have the opportunity to be better than you were. You can revert to your initial state of holiness.

Teshuvah is the process we undergo to turn away from doing wrong. We look inside ourselves. We acknowledge where we have gone wrong. We announce that we will not make the same mistakes again. We make amends for what we did. And then, faced with the same situation again, we do not repeat our old errors.[7]

At this time of year, we are forced to face up to our mistakes. The more we look at them, the more we realise how many there are. Faced with our own inadequacies, we might despair. We might think that our lives our not worth living or that we are better off destroyed. This week’s parashah teaches us: it is not too late. We are not our past mistakes.

Rabbi Meir only truly learnt this much later in life. His teacher, Elisha ben Abuya, had given up on Judaism entirely. He had stopped believing and stopped pretending to believe. He was acting immorally. Meir came to find him. He said to him: “Come back, rabbi, make teshuvah.”

But Elisha replied: “I cannot. Because I have heard the divine voice reverberating: “Return, O backsliding children,”[8] except for Elisha ben Abyuah, who knew My strength and yet rebelled against Me.” Meir’s teacher, Elisha, believed he was beyond redemption. He believed he had gone too far for God to still love him.

At the end of Elisha’s life, he fell ill, and Rabbi Meir went to visit him. He said: “Return!” Elisha asked: “Having gone so far, will I be accepted?” Rabbi Meir replied: “The Torah teaches: “God will allow a person to return, up to their being crushed,”[9] even up to the time that life is being crushed out of them.” In that instant, Elisha ben Abuyah began to weep, and then he died. Rabbi Meir rejoiced, saying: “My master departed in a state of repentance!”

But the story doesn’t end there. After Elisha was buried, fire came down from heaven to burn his grave. The other rabbis came and told Meir: “The grave of your master is on fire!” Rabbi Meir went out, spread his cloak over the grave, and prayed that God would redeem Elisha. “But if God is not willing to redeem you, then I, Meir, will redeem you.” Then the fire went out.[10]

When he was young, Meir learned that he should pray for sins to be destroyed, not sinners. And when he was old, Rabbi Meir learned that he should pray for people to make teshuvah, even when he believed it was too late.

And his prayer for others, that God have mercy on them and they change their ways, reverberated and affected his teacher in his tomb. God’s mercy extended beyond the grave.

Yes, God can bring us back even in our dying moments. God can help us make teshuvah even after death.

Our mistakes do not define us.

We are not our past mistakes.

Shabbat shalom.

I gave this sermon on Shabbat 12th September 2020, Parashat Nitzavim, for Newcastle Reform Synagogue.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 14a

[2] Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 62b

[3] Psalms 104:35

[4] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 10a

[5] Ezekiel 3:11

[6] Deuteronomy 30

[7] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:2

[8] Jeremiah 3:14

[9] Psalms 90:3

[10] Jerusalem Talmud, Hagiga 77b