Judaism: Undoing the Past
Rabbi Berel WeinRabbi Berel Wein is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator, admired...
One of the impossible tasks in human life is undoing the past. Perhaps even more tragic, and even unfair, is judging the past by current norms and standards. Yet no matter what we attempt, the past always rises up to bite us. Since all of us make mistakes in our lifetimes, the past is always a danger to us. In the scheme of things we are always remembered for our past failings rather than for our enormous later accomplishments.
The Talmud warns about this human habit for it forbids us to remind a convert to Judaism of one’s pagan origins or one who has repented of one’s original sins. But the nature of people is never that generous, especially in a world of aggressive, investigative reporting, Wikileaks mindset and mostly unsubstantiated scandal mongering. The past is always the present in current society.
Sometimes the sins and indiscretions of the past, the mistakes and errors of judgment are so important and monumental that they are never capable of being forgotten or erased. We find in the Bible that Menasheh, the king of Judah, was an idolater and promoted idolatry as the state religion of Judah during the first seventeen years of his reign. The Talmud records for us that he even executed his own grandfather the prophet Yeshayahu in his zealousness to eradicate Judaism.
Yet we are also taught that he repented of his actions and policies and that for the last thirty-three years of his rule he observed Jewish practice and reintroduced Torah law as the basis of societal life in Judah. Nevertheless, in spite of scattered references in Talmud, Midrash and prayer, which attempt to rehabilitate his historical reputation, his past always resurfaces to gain him general condemnation in Jewish thought and writings. We can never apparently truly undo the past.
If this be the case then one can legitimately ask: “Of what value is repentance?” The answer to that question is complicated and many times confusingly vague and unsatisfying. It is the subject of philosophic writings and thought by the great scholars and thinkers of Judaism throughout the ages.
Suffice it here to say that the gist of the matter is that on a personal level, true and sincere repentance erases the sins of the past and may even somehow be deemed meritorious to the individual, but the consequences – public, national, affecting the lives of others and future generations – generated by those past sins can never be completely eradicated or erased.
Menasheh’s repentance on a personal level is accepted by Heaven and he may have achieved his own redemption, but the acts of idolatry that he initiated were of such an influential nature that they cannot be undone and ignored and thus the verdict of history still finds him guilty.
The pornographer may repent of his writings and productions but the influence that those writings and productions have upon others and society generally is never undone. The murderer may truly regret one’s deed but the victim remains dead, with all of the consequences that that implies. It is a permanent stain on the fabric of society incapable of being completely removed. And similarly a person’s actions and influence for good or for better always lives on even after his passing from this life.
All lawyers, entrepreneurs and professionals make at least one great mistake in their careers.
A professor of mine in law school once taught us that all lawyers, entrepreneurs and professionals make at least one great mistake in their careers. He then declared: “Fortunate is the person that makes that mistake early in one’s career. Doomed is the one who makes it at the end of one’s active career and/or public life, for then that person will unfairly always be remembered thereafter not for one’s lifetime accomplishments but rather for that late mistake and error of judgment.”
This is also a truism of human nature. People prefer to remember the negative and sensational about others over the positive and less newsworthy good that they accomplished. There are numerous examples of this tendency in our current society. Decades of great public service are swallowed up by the current revelations of past errors of judgment and passivity.
The past is always prejudicially judged by the current standards of behavior and probity. Generations far removed from worshipping stone and wooden idols certainly cannot understand how clever and intelligent people in previous generations blindly did so. Thus it is not only the future that is inscrutable; it is the past as well. We should therefore always be wary of our past. It will not go away.