"What if?" "Lulei" and Counterfactuals for the New Year (Rosh HaShanah eve 2017)
This Hebrew year 5777 that is now coming to an end - it could have been different.
You probably think I have some specifics in mind -- which I do, but actually I am making a comment that would apply equally to every year in the history of our world. We can always imagine how things would have gone differently. In fact, focusing on some of the ways that things could have gone differently is one of our tasks now, on the cusp of a new year.
There is a particular Hebrew word that refers to the contemplation of something that didn’t happen but could have happened. The word is 'lulei' לולא, and it means 'we're it not for.' It's a word that introduces a counterfactual, an alternative that did not come to be.
Most kids in our educational programs first encounter the word Lulei in a Purim song about Haman’s 3-cornered hat. According to the song, ‘lulei hayu lo shalosh pinot לולא היו לו שלש פינות- had it not had 3 corners - lo hayah zeh ha-kova sheli. לא היה זה הכובע שלי It would not have been my hat.” This is a fine example of counterfactual reasoning, even if it is not very sophisticated.
But throughout the Bible, there are various examples of the use of the word lulei לולא that are weightier and even agonizing. For example: the word lulei is used in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Without going into the entire story: Joseph’s brothers need to travel to Egypt to purchase some more grain, but they have been told that they won’t be able to buy grain unless the youngest brother Benjamin is with them. But the brothers, have a terrible time trying to convince their father Jacob to release Benjamin to travel to Egypt with them. He is a classic overprotective father who thinks he has lost one son already. And the weeks and the months pass, and Jacob still refuses to release Benjamin to travel with them. In frustration and concern, Joseph’s brother Judah exclaims to their father Jacob: כִּי לוּלֵא הִתְמַהְמָהְנוּ כִּי-עַתָּה שַׁבְנוּ זֶה פַעֲמָיִם “Had we not delayed, we would have been able to return to Egypt twice already.” In other words: If it weren't for our unwise decision, we would all have been better off today. That is a more typical use of the world lulei: if such and such a thing had been different, I would not today be in the sorry state that I am in. In other words, this is the use of the word lulei to introduce a feeling of regret.
It’s fair to say that this has been an unusual Jewish year in the United States. Many of us have been engaging in a lot of lulei thinking, imagining small details that could have been just a little bit different, with the result that the course of the country or the world could have been transformed --
There are various dreams many of us have had for this country. And with the knowledge that we are a politically diverse community, it is clear that these are dreams that are not currently being achieved, though we may differ on what small changes could have made them possible.
We have dreamed of a country at peace with other nations. We have dreamed of a world that felt safer and safer over time instead of more and more dangerous. We have dreamed of a country where race relations and other intergroup relations seem to get better and better over time, rather than worse and worse. We have dreamed of a country where bigots are marginalized. We have dreamed of a country whose leaders are models of propriety and sensitivity, who - whether we agree with their policies or not - embody the kinds of virtues we hope our children will emulate, virtues including prudence and emotional steadiness and empathy, who know what to say to calm tensions or to defuse a crisis or to speak with an unequivocal voice of moral clarity.
Wherever you may be on the political spectrum, we can agree that these dreams are distant, maybe more distant than they once were. And many of us are saying lulei - if this had been different, if that had been different, these dreams would be closer today.
But in addition to regret on a national scale, each of us is likely to engage in some lulei thinking on an individual level as well this year. Regrets are universal. Everyone has them. For some, they are about relationships pursued or not pursued, or opportunities not taken. For some, they are about words spoken in anger, or decisions made hastily. If you don’t have any regrets, about any aspect of your life, there are two possibilities: either you are the Messiah, or you are the most arrogant and unreflective person in the world, either unable to notice your mistakes, or unwilling to admit them.
And yet reviewing our personal regrets is absolutely essential to our process of teshuvah - repentance and return and renewal. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells us that every year before the high holidays, he engages in a particular exercise. He writes: ‘Because the following exercise is painful, many people may try to find excuses to avoid doing it. Yet this procedure, more than almost any other, can help us prepare for the High Holidays. Start with the sentence, “What I regret having done in the last year is…” and list the things you wish you had done differently or not done at all.
The list can include such items as these: [slightly edited from his list:]
I didn't visit my friend who was sick.
I let a friendship drop because it would not help me socially or professionally, and might even hold me back.
I misled someone in a financial transaction.
I didn't return a phone call, or several calls, to someone who really needed to talk to me.
I didn't make an effort to help someone get a job, or help them in some other way, even though I had a connection that might have helped them.
I lost my temper - in a situation in which I was completely right, but that’s no excuse.
I was oblivious to the feelings of someone who is very important in my life. (Telushkin, Code of Jewish Ethics, p. 188-189)
The Hasidic master Rebbe Nahman of Breslov used to tell his followers that they should treat their regrets like gifts. He said, “The agony of regret is not like other kinds of agony, for it increases your days and adds to your life.” Each regret is actually an opportunity to learn about yourself
and explore a concrete change for the future.
Engaging in ‘lulei’ thinking at this time of year is exactly what Jewish tradition calls us to do. So maybe it’s not coincidental that if you take the letters of the Hebrew word ‘lulei’- לולא lamed, vav, lamed, alef - and spell them backwards, you get alef, lamed, vav, lamed - which spells אלול ‘elul’ - the name of the month of the year that we have just concluded, the month that immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah and sets the stage for the soul-searching and introspection that characterizes the high holiday season.
But of course sometimes lulei thinking can be paralyzing. Many of us have decisions in our pasts that we so deeply regret that we ruminate over them, we think of them constantly, as if we are willing for history to have changed its course. Too much focus on the lulei of regret keeps us from being the people we are meant to be. Maybe that’s another reason why lulei backwards spells the month of Elul, which is the month that just completed.
Once we are ready to start a new year, we should be ready to give a rest to the feelings of regret.
But the word lulei gets used in a different way in the Bible as well. As we have noted, often the word lulei introduces something that didn’t happen but that we wish had happened - what we have called the ‘lulei of regret.’ We wish we had done better, we wish we had avoided mistakes.
But sometimes in the Bible, the word ‘lulei’ introduces a different kind of counterfactual, which we could call the ‘lulei of gratitude.’ Sometimes the word ‘lulei’ is used to imagine an alternate reality that did not come to be, and that we are greatly greatly relieved did not come to be.
For example, in Psalm 119, we find the phrase לולא תורתך שעשועי, אז אבדתי בעניי. “Had the Torah not been my pursuit, I would have been lost in my impoverishment.”
(Psychologists, of course, have fancy names for these phenomena. What I am calling ‘the lulei of regret,’ they call ‘upward counterfactuals,’ and what I am calling ‘the lulei of gratitude,’ they call ‘downward counterfactuals.’ )
So many Jewish prayers are implicitly in the form of lulei statements - encouraging us to picture what our lives would be like without some of the blessings we have, to which we may have been oblivious.For example, every morning, traditional Jews recite the words, ברוך אתה ה' א' מלך העולם פוקח עוורים Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam pokeiach ivrim, “Blessed are you Adonai, who gives sight to the blind.” this blessing encourages us, for just a moment, to contemplate the lulei - to contemplate what our lives would be like without the gift of sight.
Actually, the most famous use of the word lulei’ in the Hebrew bible is a lulei of gratitude. It’s the verse at the end of Psalm 27 that is added throughout the High Holiday season. At the conclusion of a psalm that mentions various life difficulties and challenges, we read the words
לוּלֵא הֶאֱמַנְתִּי לִרְאוֹת בְּטוּב-ה’ בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים Lulei he’emanti lir’ot be-tuv adonai be-eretz hayyim, “Had I not trusted that I would see God’s goodness in the land of the living…” And then the writer just trails off. The writer never tells you what exactly would have happened if the writer had not trusted to see God’s goodness. That ‘downward counterfactual’ is just too difficult even to articulate. You get a sense that the writer of this psalm is experiencing a difficult time, but nevertheless has an ability to cultivate gratitude, in part by contemplating what could have been even worse.
In the same way that at this time of year we assemble our lulei lists - our own lists of regret, so too this is a time to assemble our lulei lists of gratitude.
Let me tell you about just one of the items on my lulei list of gratitude at this moment as we begin the new year. I am grateful to God for the life and heroism of a man named Stanislav Petrov. It is not an exaggeration to say that he was one of the most important people in world history, even though I had never heard his name until this week, and even though he died last May but few people noticed besides his family, so obituaries for him started to appear only this week.
You may never have heard of Stanislav Petrov. But if you are 35 years old or older, he probably saved your life in 1983. As a Russian officer at a nuclear missile facility, at a particularly tense time during the Cold War, Petrov received an alert that a barrage of American nuclear missiles had been launched towards the Soviet Union. His role was to report this alert to his superiors, with the knowledge that they would probably launch a retaliatory attack on the United States - as that is exactly what the protocol would have had them do.
But even though the warning system was supposed to be reliable,
Petrov had his doubts. It just didn’t seem credible to imagine that the US would launch such an attack without any warning. So even though all of his training and all of the protocols told him that he should report this alert to his superiors, Petrov used his own judgment. He didn’t report it to his superiors. And it’s a good thing that he didn’t, because the alert system HAD malfunctioned.
This is the season of counterfactuals - both upward and downward.
This is the season of the lulei of regret, and the lulei of gratitude.
This is the season of the lulei of regret, and the lulei of gratitude.
May our new year of 5778 תשע’’ח be a year of joy, fulfillment, good health, and peace. May it be a year of the lulei of gratitude, helping us to remember just how much we have to be thankful for about our lives and our world. And may it be include just enough of the lulei of regret so that we can grow into the people we are meant to be and make this country and world into the places they are meant to be.