Can you have a future if you can’t escape the past?

Two recent articles had me thinking about the possibility of tshuvah today.  The first was an article that appeared in Salon over a tiny brou-ha-ha that was engendered when someone caught sight of a box of milkbones in a picture that Michael Vick tweeted out early this month. Vick, as you may recall, served 2 years in prison for his involvement in dogfighting. The response to the news getting out about this tweet was nearly universal -that it was appalling that anyone had allowed this man to have a dog in his home. After about a week, he issued the following statement, “I understand the strong emotions by some people about our family’s decision to care for a pet. As a father, it is important to make sure my children develop a healthy relationship with animals. I want to ensure that my children establish a loving bond and treat all of God’s creatures with kindness and respect. Our pet is well cared for and loved as a member of our family. To that end, I will continue to honor my commitment to animal welfare and be an instrument of positive change.” What do you  think? Is that enough?

The second article was  – well, it wasn’t just one article, but let’s go with this version of the story of Amanda Todd. Todd was the girl who committed suicide after being stalked by an adult who convinced her to flash her breasts to the camera, then used the picture to blackmail her into further exposures, then posted her pictures for others;  who was bullied in school by students who found the pictures, and who followed her from school to school, city to city, followed by other children determined to harm her, by adults who felt that their sexual pleasure was more important than the girl’s right to grow up unmolested… and by the internet, which made it all too easy for those who tormented her to hound her beyond despair.

On the face of it, there isn’t too much similarity between these two cases. The first is an adult who made choices to harm animals, who broke the law for his own amusement, and who then paid a price for it. About him, we ask whether he should ever be able to own a dog again. Does he deserve to ever own another pet? The second is a girl who only the sickest would call anything but a victim.

Yet, there is a certain similarity –one which rests at least in part upon the ubiquity of social media . Both were unable to move beyond a particular moment in time in which an event occurred because it is forever embedded in Facebook, reddit, twitter. Our pictures are there forever – whether we are the ones who put them there or not, whether we even know that those pictures were taken – once they are posted, they live forever.  Our whole lives are scrapbooked for anyone with a little technological savvy to retrieve, and it has become impossible for many to leave their pasts behind.

What happens when our every action is forever? In Judaism there is the notion that when one truly repents, the sin is wiped away as if it has never been. The Talmud in Bava Metzia (58b) says, “Our Rabbis taught: Ye shall not therefore wrong one another; (Lev. 25:17) Scripture refers to verbal wrongs. …E.g., If a person is a penitent, one must not say to them, ‘Remember your former deeds.’”

Unlike many people, I am not, generally opposed to being judgmental. I do believe that when people act badly, we have a responsibility to say so, and to recognize and discern that our choices express values, and that some choices are bad – or wicked. But there is a difference between recognizing that an action is bad, or even that a person’s values are wrong,  and freezing the person in time forever according to one, or even several choices that they have made.  According to our tradition, there is never a point at which it is too late to turn back, to repent, to try to make your actions right and your life better. It may be difficult, it may be hard for others to believe, but it is always possible. God always accepts true repentance.

But  is this possible in the human world when we are chased by our pasts in a way that was never seen before?  Judaism recognizes that the onus of redemption is not entirely up to the person who seeks it. After all, the rabbis didn’t say that “a person should not remember his former deeds.” Rather, they said that no one should say to him, “remember your former deeds.”

Easy enough to say. How, though, is this to be achieved, in Amanda Todd’s world? Or Michael Vick’s? Whom do we teach not to pursue people with their pasts, and how do we rein in the technologies that make it possible to not only tell people’s pasts, but stir it up vividly, forever? How can we convince others that it is not only okay to forget other peoples’ pasts, but necessary?

I have no answers. But I felt hopeful after reading this story, which tells of a sports team which offered love to another sports team.  I don’t know what landed.  Perhaps if the Grapevine Faith students knew, they wouldn’t have been able to do what they did. But perhaps, just perhaps, simply reaching out to the Gainesville students, regardless of what they had done before, nevermind who they were, or what had been done to them, perhaps it will allow one or two or a few of them to leave the past behind them.

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