The premise of Life After Life, led me to think about our opportunities for remedying mistakes in the life we are currently living. Surely, we can’t go back in time and prevent things from occurring, but, on the other hand, might we somehow shift our memories and the memories of others?
In his book, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Adin Steinsaltz says that “with regard to repentance, that before man was created, he was given the possibility of changing the course of his life….Man can extricate himself from the binding web of his life, from the chain of causality that otherwise compels him to follow a path of no return….However, even though the past is “fixed,” repentance admits of an ascendancy over it, of the possibility of changing its significance in the context of the present and future. In a world of the inexorable flow of time, in which all objects and events are interconnected in a relationship of cause and effect, repentance is the exception: it is the potential for something else.”
What I interpret Steinsaltz as saying is that by making an apology or participating in an act of tikkun, you can actually shift the energy of the negative event. In the movie Atonement, we witness a little girl fabricate a story that results in her sister’s boyfriend being arrested. The event causes their lives to be forever changed and both the sister and her boyfriend end up being killed in World War II. The little girl becomes an author. The last novel she pens before she dies is a re-writing of her misdeed and the ultimate happy ending of her sister and her beau. She says that the story is her apology and her attempt to let her sibling live out the life she would have lived had the transgression not occurred.
In this week’s Torah portion, Aharei Mot, God tells us, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life that effects expiation. What is interesting is that much earlier in our Torah we are told that the breath is life. But, what I think is being said is that when God breathes us into living, our soul enters our body. However, the blood is actually the life-force of the physical. In this parshat, we are told that blood is crucial for expiation, and interestingly enough, one of the meanings of the word expiation is correction. In essence, these lives we lead, in the flesh, with blood flowing through our veins, affords us the ability to learn from our mistakes and make course corrections during the length of our existence. The blood is the glue that keeps our bodies functioning so that the soul, or life force, may carry out this mission.
Ursula in Life After Life is born on February 11, 1910 only to die moments later due to strangulation by the umbilical cord. Then, in the next scene she is re-born again, only this time, the cord is loosened and she lives. Later, she and her sister drown at the beach, but when she is born again, her instinct prevents the drowning. With each passing life, her ability to be aware in the present moment increases, allowing her to make alternate choices.
Because her lifetimes included so much suffering in WWII, Ursula returns to kill Hitler in one of her incarnations. And, though, in our one life that we are living now, we can’t have such dramatic impact on the past, we can choose a different response in the present. We are repeatedly confronted with scenarios that ask us to choose kindness instead of anger, to choose generosity over hoarding to choose growth of character instead of stagnation. And each time we are presented with these choices, we have the opportunity to be awake and to select a better avenue, affecting both the past, the present, and the future.
Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory, said that “stretching before us from this moment are the infinite consequences of our present action.” We can let go of the pain of the past by covering it over with new intention and then allowing that intention to ripple out soul to soul until it has filled all of time.