What does Judaism say about regret? I'm not talking about regretting sins that I've committed, I'm talking about choices that I made and things I didn't do that I should have done that would have changed my life for the better. Thanks.
There is an interesting story about a Reb Susya who was a major scholar and very pious man.At his death bed his students saw that he was crying and assumed it was out of fear.They asked Reb Susyah what he had to fear from G-d since he had led such a pious and exemplary life. He answered that if G-d asked him why he had not become another Moshe Rabeinu (Moses our teacher) he would answer that he wasn’t given the leadership qualities of a Moshe.If G-d asked why he had not become another Dovid Hamelech (King David), he would answer that he had not been given the poetic gifts of Dovid.If G-d asked him why he had not become another Rebbie Akiva, he would answer that he wasn’t given the intellect of Rebbie Akiva.However, if G-d asked, “Reb Susya, why didn’t you become a Reb Susya”, he would have nothing to answer G-d, and it was that question which he feared.
From this story we can deduce that one should always try to fulfill one’s potential.I, however, deduce something else.If even a Reb Susya can question his accomplishments and in essence regret missed opportunities, then the rest of us are quite human to do the same.I believe we all have regrets about missed opportunities, but Judaism does give us a direction as to how to deal with them.Interestingly enough the direction is found in the contradiction between our belief in G-d’s omniscience and our free will.
Our Rabbis tell us, “Everything is in G-d’s hands except the fear of G-d”.Even though G-d is the grand conductor of our lives, we still have free will to choose, or not to choose a life direction.There is no satisfying answer to this contradiction, but the contradiction gives us a way to live.Here is a suggestion.
Draw a circle around where you are sitting right now.The religious perspective would say that you are exactly where you should be at this moment, dealing with exactly what you should be dealing with, and connecting with exactly those people with whom G-d wants you to connect.Your whole life has been preparing you for this very moment (perhaps reading this comment).Everything that you have gone through and have learned can now be put to use in the next few seconds.All the regrets you may feel are part of what you were suppose to learn up until right now.The exciting reality, however, is that at this very moment you have the opportunity to make a free will choice as to what you are going to do in the next few seconds and for the rest of your life.Using the Torah as your moral guide and moving in the direction that you believe is toward your greatest growth (all the better if it is to eventually help other people) will direct you all the more toward your constantly emerging life purpose. May you have a wonderful New Year filled with learning, growth and few regrets.
When Jacob our Patriarch appears before Pharaoh he is more than wistful in discussing his personal history; he seems genuinely regretful (Genesis 47). Of course as Jews we tend to be particularly focused on evaluating wrongful deeds rather than mistaken paths, but even the latter finds expression in our tradition. The many ethical wills that have been published are, to a great extent, inclusive of advice given as a result of previous experience. Often, bad experience is what shapes that advice. There is no shame in wondering whether or not things could have been done better or differently. Healthy regret is not a fault but a manifestation of a thoughtful and self-evaluative soul.
There are two types of sins in our tradition: those of commission, those actions or choices we have taken for which we are sorry, and those of omission, those choices or actions we did not make that affected us or others in a negative way. For both of these, there is atonement. This becomes the theme of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Atonement is not just about those things we have done for which we are sorry, but for those lost opportunities, those moments of acquiescence, or those times of hesitation that have led to disappointment. Teshuvah, repentance, is more than any words can encompass. It involves actions, learning from our shortcomings and mistakes, so that they will not be repeated. “Actions speak louder than words” is the essence of teshuvah. Acceptance of the past as having happened, and that it cannot be changed, is necessary. Only then can those past acts of omission teach us to the meaningful and fulfilling choices of the future.
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