Wordplay: Regrets, he's had a few
It might be the Day of Atonement, but there's no use crying over spilt milk, says Michael Handelzalts.
The whys and whats and wherefores of how one should observe the Day of Atonement are spelled out very clearly and concisely in Leviticus: "And it shall be a statute for ever unto you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and shall do no manner of work, the home-born, or the stranger that sojourneth among you. For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the Lord" (16:29-30).
In the preceding pages you have read about the various and varied ways that followers of all faiths have indeed afflicted their souls, all too often through mortifying their own bodies, in order to cleanse themselves and achieve what they believe is the desired degree of atonement in the eyes of their Creator.
Being of very little faith myself - and being willing to accept the reciprocal situation in which God has also no faith in me - I gladly admit that I don't much care whether my sins have been cleansed, or not, according to the standard of He-who-must-not-be-named. And no, I don't mean Lord Voldemort of the Harry Potter saga, but rather the God of the Jews, who is referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures very often as Hashem (literally, "the name" ) in the form of a four-letter word which is never uttered out loud.
However, I have found much virtue in the commentary of the Jewish sages regarding the above-mentioned verses, particularly in the following distinction made by Elazar Ben Azaria: "For transgressions as between man and the omnipresent the day of Atonement procures atonement, but for transgressions between man and his fellow the day of Atonement does not procure atonement, until he has pacified his fellow" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, folio 85b ).
Indeed, whenever I'm being accused of causing harm or pain, or of insulting and offending anyone (an occupational hazard for a practicing critic, but other human beings do it too ) - I'll gladly offer my apologies to begin with, before even proceeding to deal with the nitty-gritty of the alleged offense. One should always bear in mind that an offense may have been "a given" (from the offender's point of view ), whereas it turns into an insult only if taken by, and embraced as such, by the "insultee."
What worries me most - on the Day of Atonement and on every other day of the year - are the transgressions between a man (or woman ) and himself (herself ), notwithstanding the collateral damage done to others in the process. And this is where the concept of regret comes into play.
According to the OED the noun regret is "a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over an occurrence or something that one has done or failed to do." The etymology is from Old French regreter (to bewail [the dead] ), or perhaps from the Scottish greet, meaning "to weep." One often looks back, kicking oneself for doing or not doing a thing or two, although popular songs tend to advise against dwelling on things: Take, for instance, "Regrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention" (from "My Way"; English lyrics by Paul Anka, immortalized by Frank Sinatra ), and "Non, Je ne regrette rien" (lyrics by Michel Vaucaire, sung by the inimitable Edith Piaf ).
This brings to mind the adage "No use crying over spilled milk" - interpreted by the OED as meaning "there is no point in regretting something which has already happened and cannot be changed or reversed." Unless you actually spill milk on somebody, in which case you should not cry, although an apology would be in order.
There is considerable argument about the source of that expression. Some claim its origin is English fairy tales, as fairies are supposed to love the taste of milk ("are not you he, that frights the maidens of the villagery, skim milk..." a fairy asks Puck, in "A Midsummer Nights' Dream" ). If this is so, then one really should not cry over spilled milk. On the contrary: It may be put to good use to appease fairies (who are prone - like gods - to be good as often as they are bad ) by feeding them.
Other sources quote the Welsh writer James Howell, who included the saying "no weeping for shed milk" in his collection of proverbs, entitled "Paramoigraphy" (1659 ).
Jonathan Swift also mentions this saying in his "Polite Conversation in Three Dialogues" (1738 ): In the middle of the first dialogue, Lady Smart breaks a tea cup.
Lady Answerall says, "Lord, Madam, How came you to break your Cup?"
Lady Smart answers: "I can't help it, if I would cry my Eyes out."
Miss Notable offers: "Why, sell it. Madam, and buy a new one with some of the Money."
Colonel Atwit sums up: "'Tis a Folly to cry for spilt Milk."
Swift writes in a lengthy introduction: "I could not without much grief observe how frequently both Gentlemen and Ladies are at a Loss for questions, Answers, Replies and Redinders." He himself attended many parties and dinners over the years, and after jotting down phrases of polite wit, he recommends "the following Treatise to be carried about as a Pocket-Companion, by all Gentlemen and Ladies, when they are going to visit, or dine, or drink Tea ... to prepare themselves for every kind of Conversation that can possibly happen."
It very soon dawns on the reader that under a guise of "comedy of manners," Swift had penned a satire on the decorum and modes of speech of his contemporaries. Apparently, already in the 18th century, advice doled out about tears and milk did not make much sense, and indeed he considered it, with other phrases of "Polite Conversation," to be a lot of nonsense.
When the milk has already been spilled, the only thing left to do - since one cannot "unspill" it, just as one cannot "undrop" a bomb or indeed "unutter" words already said - is to have a good cry over it. Unless, of course, it is the milk of human kindness we are talking about, which supposedly can do no harm, even when spilled.
The 1970s' Israeli rock group Kaveret also had something to say about the proverb in question. During one of their nonsensical trademark skits, performed between songs, one of them recounted some sad occasion, during which the mood brightened when someone spilled milk to stop the others from crying.
And yet sometimes even listening to Frank Sinatra and Edith Piaf and crying one's eyes out still does not help. Then the regret may morph into remorse, which is defined by OED as "deep regret or guilt for a wrong committed." That is something that might well be expected of convicted criminals, although some of them (brothers Yigal and Haggai Amir, for instance ) refuse to express it.
It seems as if it is not the remorse itself that matters, but the expression of remorse that is supposed to have a pacifying effect on the men or women, against whom we have allegedly transgressed. But here, again, as with an insult, it all depends not upon the him or her who express it, but rather on the person who is on the receiving end and must judge the honesty of it. As in many other things, remorse is all in the eyes, ears and soul of the beholder. A touchy fellow, this beholder guy.
There is only one thing left to say about all this: It is better to sleep with regret then to wake up with remorse.