This Hebrew year that is now coming to an end: it could have been different. We can probably imagine various ways, large and small, that this year could have unfolded differently than it did.
While I do have some specifics in mind, 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 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, which means “were it not for….” It’s a word that introduces a counterfactual, an alternative that did not come to be. Lulei is thus an important Hebrew word at this time of year.
Most kids in our educational programs first encounter the word Lulei in a trivial context, in a song about Haman’s 3-cornered hat. According to the song, “lulei hayu lo shalosh pinot – had it not had 3 corners – lo hayah zeh ha-kova sheli . It would not have been my hat.” This is a fine example of counterfactual reasoning (though not particularly sophisticated).
But throughout the Bible, there are various examples of the use of the word Lulei that are much more weighty and even agonizing. For example, the word Lulei is used in the story of Joseph and his brothers. 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. The brothers have a terrible time trying to convince their father Jacob to release Benjamin to travel to Egypt with them. After weeks and months have passed, in frustration and concern, Joseph’s brother Judah exclaims to their father Jacob: “Ki lulei hitmah’mahnu, ki atah shavnu zeh fa’amayim. Had we not delayed, we would have been able to return to Egypt twice already.” In other words: If not for our unwise decision, we would all have been better off today. That is a 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.
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 [truly] evil, 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 – lamed, vav, lamed, alef לולא – and spell them backwards, you get alef, lamed, vav, lamed אלול – which spells Elul – the name of the month of the year that immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah and sets the stage for the season of soul-searching and introspection that characterizes the High Holy Day season.
Sometimes Lulei thinking can be paralyzing. Many of us have decisions in our pasts that we so deeply regret, that we ruminate over them, thinking of them constantly, as if we could convince history to change its course. Too much focus on the Lulei of regret keeps us from being the people we are meant to be. Maybe that’s the reason why Lulei backwards spells the month of Elul: 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. Sometimes, instead of introducing something positive that did not happen, the word lulei is used to imagine a terrible alternate reality that did not come to be, and that we are greatly greatly relieved did not come to be. We could call this “the Lulei of gratitude,” as opposed to the “Lulei of regret.” For example, in the psalms, we have the phrase לולא תורתך שעשועי, אז אבדתי בעניי. Lulei toratekha sha’ashu’ai, az avad’ti be-onyi. 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.” )
Actually, at this time of year, the most famous use of the word “Lulei” in the Hebrew Bible is a “ Lulei of gratitude,” or a “downward counterfactual.” 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. We 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.
Religious leaders and psychologists would agree that both kinds of counterfactuals are necessary and helpful in different situations. The downward counterfactuals – the Lulei of gratitude – help us to appreciate the blessings in our lives to which we might otherwise be oblivious. And the upward counterfactuals – the Lulei of regret – push us to grow and to do better in the future.
The month of Elul is the time of year to focus on what might have been – for better and for worse. May our new year be full 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.