Yom Kippur is typically a time of remembrance, humility, and most of all atonement. As humanistic Jews we live by the idea of helping others, doing right by others, protecting others, which of course begs the question: What could we possibly have to atone for? The answer lies in the fact that a large part of humanism is to be human. As was probably best said by Alexander Pope: “to err is human.” Put more simply, we all make mistakes.
The question we have to ask ourselves this time of year is do we let our mistakes define who we are or do we let our mistakes hone who we are.
I was speaking with an attorney who related a story about a client of his that I thought was particularly relevant today. The attorney had a client, “Todd”. Todd was in business with a close childhood friend, and they were both quite successful, until the childhood friend did something that impacted both Todd and the business. Once Todd found out about the betrayal by the friend, that began a saga of hatred that ended up in the court system and lasted a number of years. There’s no question that what the childhood friend did to Todd and the business was terrible and wrong. It was a horrible betrayal of Todd’s trust that had professional and financial consequences that the attorney explained, had an impact on Todd and the business for years. When the dust settled from litigation, nearly five years after Todd learned of the betrayal, Todd and the childhood friend had no further contact for years after – until a few months ago. The attorney indicated that Todd received a call from his now former childhood friend who was lying in a hospital bed having just been read last rites by the hospital priest. Todd said that his childhood friend was very difficult to understand but what came through loud and clear in the call to Todd was that the friend was all alone in a hospital bed waiting to die and he called Todd one last time simply to say he was sorry
As the attorney told me this story, all I could think to myself was what a waste. It was touching that at the end the friend sought Todd’s forgiveness, and the attorney said that by that point, Todd was more than willing to give it to him. On some level it closes that loop of anger and hatred that lasted far too long, but the tragedy is that Todd’s friend allowed himself to be defined by his mistake – at least with Todd, and perhaps even by others. Todd’s friend was largely owned by his mistake until it was truly too late. Too late to grow, too late to do anything differently, and to a certain degree too late to change, beyond a last fleeting call for forgiveness. Moreover, in Todd’s eyes, until that final phone call, his former friend and all the history between them since childhood, became defined by the friend’s mistake. It begs the question, how much differently could things have turned out for both of them if the friend had instead immediately chosen that mistake to hone him, rather than let it define him. To have sought atonement earlier, perhaps to work to restore that relationship, so years weren’t wasted. Ultimately, even if the friend’s effort was unsuccessful with Todd – the friend still would have taken steps forward in terms of personal growth, even if Todd was not willing to forgive. Sadly, none of that happened until the final moments of the friend’s life.
That is one of the purposes of Yom Kippur – it is a day when we say “my mistake does not define me.” It is not who I am. We say: my mistake will hone who I am, and help me be a better person. This will start first with the person who I may have hurt or upset, and perhaps seeking their forgiveness. Then using that mistake as a learning moment, we look deeply at ourselves, and figure out how not to make that same mistake again, both with the person we first made it with, and anyone else. It is a day that allows us to live without bearing the burden of mistakes, by focusing us to take this time to reflect upon those mistakes, and make the most of them for ourselves, and those around us.