Like the replay of a favorite CD, life often replays for us in the present events of the past. Mark Twain expressed it this way: “History does not repeat itself in exactly the same way but it does rhyme.” As in the replay of a CD in which we adjust the CD player for a finer tone to the music and a clearer expression of the lyrics, so in life’s replay we seek to repair the mistakes and reemphasize the contributions we made in the past.
The Jewish tradition calls this replay of life in which we change course, teshuvah, commonly translated “repentance” but literally a return to our better selves. Here is my popular rendering of how Maimonides puts it in his great code of Jewish law. “When the replay of life enables you to transgress in a way you have done before and you refuse to do it, not our of fear or owing to physical weakness, but out of conviction, that is teshuvah.
In a fascinating article in the Boston Globe, Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, whose book, Black Earth:The Holocaust as History and Warning, points out that the refugee crisis today in Europe is a replay of a previous refugee crisis. In the nineteen thirties Jewish refugees seeking refuge from Nazi oppression were turned away again and again by European countries. The tactic was to deprive them of citizenship and then deport them to Germany or Nazi occupied territory where the Germans were willing to murder them at Auschwitz and other death camps. Even the United States, England and the Commonwealth countries accepted a paltry number of desperate Jews, men, women and children.
Has the world repented? The Germans somewhat, but the rest of the world hardly at all. Environmentalists point out that the current refugee crisis was triggered by drought in Syria, Afghanistan and Africa. But Assad and other authoritarian leaders responded to peaceful protests and cries of help with repression and bloodshed. As global warming makes drought a common occurrence throughout the world, refugees will be pouring over borders everywhere. This week world Jewry approaches, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, with its central theme of teshuvah, returning to our better selves. Jews plead with a callous, corrupt world–act before it is too late.