Letting Go of All That Was
Rabbi Shlomo Vilk
Rosh Yeshivat Hesder Machanaim, Named in Memory of Joseph and Leila Applebaum
The soul has two primary ways of preserving the past: through nostalgia and memory. Nostalgia is a negative force insofar as it arouses longing again and again and again, and does not allow the future to shine through into the present. Rather, it sees the future as something wanting and blemished in comparison to the past; it evokes unrest in the present and fear of the future.
The older we get, the more nostalgic we become and our heart becomes less open. Courage leaves us and the past often becomes a heavy load. The longing for a future of redemption is replaced by a longing for a past painted in bright colors and shiny glitter. Nostalgia is the weapon of those who have despaired and are wary of the future, those who wish to turn back.
A sense of mourning and bereavement that is passed from one year to the next is even more difficult. It is a rule of thumb that the deceased is forgotten from the heart after 12 months, said our Sages, and they consequently enacted the mourning period for the deceased to be precisely that duration.
By taking the feelings of sorrow and grief for a loved one who has passed away into the New Year, one dims joy of life and burdens the soul with an awful emptiness, a black hole of sorts that sucks into it every iota of light and energy. In order to fill these black holes, one must detach oneself from their gravity by applying great emotional strength and disconnecting from the loss and the mourning. Mourning turns into a heavy weight that prevents the future from seeping in; it is as if time stopped on that wretched day when everything turned black.
But the start of a new year demands of us to disconnect from mourning and bereavement. Yom Kippur comes to release us of the burden of the past and separate us from the wrongs for which we are responsible, as well as the mishaps that have befallen us. It enables us to detach ourselves from reward and punishment, and to help us let go of all that was, so that we may be able to open our hearts to the New Year and the myriad of blessings embedded therein.
The purpose of this holy day is not that we might forget what was, or move on and ignore everything — as the Psalmist wrote, “My sin is before me always” [Ch. 51]. We never forget our sin, but we do let it go, not only by refraining from doing it in the future but also by forgiving the past. The separation from the past releases the burden; memory remains to pave the future.
Each one of us carries with us some kind of burden from the past: “I was not successful in such and such; I was not able to become whom I wanted; I have sinned in that or the other.” Sometimes we are aware of this burden; at other times, we repress it or ignore it.
On Yom Kippur we bring all our memories to the surface; we examine all the possibilities; we talk of our sins and make confessions; we move everything to our conscious memory, not only for the sake of leaving it there, but also for the sake of leaving it behind.