There’s an old saying, attributed to George Santayana, that says:
“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
During the month of Elul we are reminded of this truth, because the month of Elul is the time of year that we are called upon to acknowledge our past and repent of our sins, in anticipation of the coming High Holy Days. Every one of us are tainted with faults and, as we reflect on our errors, though we should not embrace condemnation, we need to be challenged not to repeat the mistakes of the past. So, the month of Elul reminds us to consider our past for the sake of the future.
If you take word Elul אלול and reverse the order of the letters, it becomes לולא lulei, which means, “were it not for,” I’m sure many of us could say, “Were it not for that mistake or bad choice, my life would be much different, today.” Unfortunately its true that, even thought there is forgiveness in God, there are still lingering consequences for our actions, sometimes affecting us and our family for decades. In the month of Elul we look backwards and examine past mistakes in order to be challenged not to repeat those mistakes.
One story from Scripture that helps to make our point is found in Genesis 12. After arriving in Canaan, famine forced Abram to go down to Egypt. Once he enters the land, he tells the Egyptians that Sarai (later Sarah) is his sister, concealing the fact that she is his wife. As a result of this deceit, Sarai is abducted by Pharaoh who has intentions to take her as his wife, and he would have done so had it not been for God intervention by way of a dream. In the end, Abram and Sarai are forced out of Egypt, but taking with them an Egyptian woman named Hagar. This relationship with Hagar eventually results in Ishmael, one of the fathers of the Islamic world. So, to this very day, the world is dealing with the consequences of Abram telling the Egyptians that Sarai was his sister.
Even though there is forgiveness, consequences of our actions often linger with us. However, there’s another appropriate saying, attributed to Soren Kierkegaard, that says, “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” In other words, we can’t go back and change the past, but we can learn from it and we can determine not to make the same mistakes, for the sake of the future. Here’s how Paul put it in his letter to the Philippians:
“Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead.” (Philippians 3:13)
As we reflect on our shortcomings and failures, we should not fall into the pit of condemnation but be provoked to turn away from the thoughts, attitudes and deeds that would cause us to repeat those mistakes of the past. Remembering the past should inspire us to press toward the mark that is before us.