William Faulkner famously noted: “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.”
In this season of preparation for the Days of Awe, we Jews are constantly reminded of the truth of Faulkner’s words. The opening of our double Torah portion for this week, Nitzavim/Vayelech, exemplifies the way that past, present and future fold back upon one another. Moses begins by speaking to the present, in which a new generation, born into freedom, is poised to enter the land of Israel: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God. . . from the woodchopper to the water drawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God, which the Eternal your God is concluding with you today.” He then invokes the future, proclaiming that God makes this covenant “not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day. . . and with those who are not here with us this day.” Finally, he recalls this past, reminding the people of their history: “Well you know that we dwelt in the land of Egypt and that we passed through the midst of various other nations.”
This intertwining of past, present, and future is also at the heart of our primary task for this sacred season—the making of teshuvah. Often translated as “repentance”, teshuvah literally means “return”. It is a way that in the present, we can return to the past and change its meaning for our future. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner explains this concept beautifully: “Obviously we do not undo the past. What is done is done. But what we do now about what we did then, while not altering the past deed itself, can place it into a new context of meaning. By our present actions, we can effectively reach back through the otherwise impermeable membrane that seals the past and thus reshape it. For example, we may have injured someone with a thoughtless remark long ago. Now we not only acknowledge, regret, and repudiate what we did, we devote ourselves to repairing the damage. We not only make amends and through them make ourselves into a finer person, we also heal the pain so that now in the light of our present turning, both the one we injured and ourselves regard our original transgression as the initiation of this greater intimacy and love. We have placed the initial damage into a larger constellation of meaning. Isolated, the past evil deed is only a great shame. But seen from the present, as the commencement of this new turning, the meaning of the original deed has been transformed and the past is rewritten.”
This week, as we approach Selichot and the urgency of our preparation for the upcoming Days of Awe intensifies, reflect on how, today, you can change the meaning of past mistakes into future possibilities—and then act on your reflections.