“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” – George Eliot
“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” – Berkley Breathed
“It is never too late to give up our prejudices.” – Henry David Thoreau
There are no shortage of inspiring quotations telling us that no matter what, we can always turn around, we can always change, always erase the past. The problem is that it is not always true.
We read today one of the most tragic passages in the Torah. The Jewish People on the cusp of one of the greatest turnarounds in history were about to leave their past behind. No longer slaves, bearers of a radical and powerful tradition, and about to complete the trifecta by entering the land of Israel. But they did not.
They foolishly believed the report of the spies, they lost their faith in Moshe, lost their faith in G-d, and they were left to die in the desert. That would seem to be a summary of this week’s Parsha.
Only that there’s one more chapter to the story, one that we normally gloss over.
After hearing that G-d was upset with them, after hearing that they made a terrible mistake by not believing in G-d and wanting to go back to Egypt, a large number of the Jewish People say, “Hey, it’s never too late!” They arm themselves, and instead of going back towards the desert as G-d told them to do, they start marching towards Israel. Moshe begs them to turn around, to come back, that they’ll be unsuccessful, but they don’t listen. “Moshe, it’s never too late to be what you might have been, to have a happy childhood. We’re going for it.”
But it was too late. They didn’t make it too far before being defeated and killed.
It’s not very often that I get emotional listening to C-Span. But when Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, concluded his rousing speech this week after the terrible shooting in Virginia, and was followed by Nancy Pelosi, who said, and I quote, “You’re going to hear me say something you’ve never heard me say before. I identify myself with the remarks of [the speaker].” I was genuinely moved.
Only that after being moved, a more cynical thought crossed my mind, “It’s too late Ms. Pelosi, and it’s too late Mr. Ryan.” An atmosphere of such intense hatred is a fertile ground for the terrible calamity that we saw at the Republican baseball practice. And it’s very nice to come together at a time like this, but it would even be nicer if they had done so in the past.
Sometimes it is too late.
There is some fascinating research that demonstrates the relationship between tragedy and human bonding. Crises do make us closer. The theory behind it is that when there’s a crisis we feel vulnerable and alone. And it’s then that we have a heightened need for social connection, our most basic human need. So it’s natural to come together at times of distress. But sometimes, we have burned so meant bridges before the crisis that there is no one left to bond with.
I hope I’m wrong, I hope this past week demonstrated that maybe just maybe it’s not too late on Capitol Hill for people to come together. Maybe just maybe there still exists a human bond of shared purpose bridging the political divide. I hope and pray that that is the case.
Turning inwards, I hope we can also learn the tragic lesson of the spies, and recognize in our own lives that sometimes it’s simply too late.
When a person is reckless with their life and only acknowledges it after something tragic happens to them or to someone else. It’s too late.
When a child forgives their parent only after the parent dies. It’s too late.
When a husband and wife are constantly bickering and they don’t start to work on their relationship until one party wants out. It’s too late.
Of course, sometimes it is not too late, and we have an obligation to not throw in the towel. But sometimes we’ve simply waited too long and when we wake up there is something irrevocably lost.
I want to share with you a story of someone who thankfully did not wait until it’s too late.
About four years ago, a young Chassidic man, Nachman Glauber, was killed in a hit-and-run accident in New York. Raizy, his wife, was six months pregnant with their first son, who died the next day, after being delivered. A few days later, a letter that Nachman had written to his parents on his wedding day emerged. I’d like to read it to you (translated by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg):
To my dear parents:
In these imminent joyous and highly spiritual moments of my life, when I’m heading to my chuppah to begin my own family, I feel a sting in my heart that I’m already leaving your warm home.
I feel an obligation to thank you for everything you did for me since I was a small child. You did not spare time, energy and money, whether it was when I needed a private tutor to learn or an eye doctor or general encouragement. Also, later on, you helped me to succeed in my Torah studies, you sent me to yeshiva to learn your values, religious and worldly, until I reached to this current lucky moment.
Even though I’m leaving your home (actually I’m not leaving, I’m bringing in an additional family member) I want to tell you that all the education and values you taught me I’ll – with G-d’s help — take along with me in my new home, and continue to plant the same education in my home and kids that G-d will grant me.
But since kids do not grasp what parents are, and how much they do for them, and only when he matures and – with G-d’s help — have their own kids, they could realize it. And unfortunately I may have caused you a lot of pain; I am asking you to please forgive me.
I’m asking you, I’m dependent on your prayers, pray for me and my bride, and I will pray for you.
I pray to G-d that Daddy and Mommy should see lots of pride and delight from me and my special bride, until the final redemption of the Messiah.
From your son who admires and thanks you and will always love you.
Nachman could not have known that his life would be robbed just a few months later. We never know when that day will come. But Nachman thankfully said what he what to say before it was too late.
May we learn to do the same, to say thank you, to say I love you, to say I’m sorry today. May we be blessed with long lives. May we be blessed with second chances and third chances and fourth chances. But let’s also remember that sometimes it is too late.