When I was going through a number of professional challenges many years ago, I questioned the motives of those who were undermining my position as Head of School. I aired my feelings in front of a small group of people, and I regretted it soon after. My critical comments did not improve things; in fact, they made me feel smaller. I had spoken about somebody negatively and it gnawed at me. The full realization of what I had done hit me many years later. The person to whom I attributed these base motives was no longer living in the city and our professional paths were totally different. In time, I forgot about my offensive remark; but, strangely, about 20 years later, as I was reciting the confessional of Yom Kippur, my offensive behavior of many years ago surfaced in my mind. I resolved to see if I could locate the person I maligned and ask for his forgiveness. Fortunately, I was able to contact him and ask for his forgiveness, which he readily granted. As often occurs, he did not even remember the incident which had been haunting me and was gracious towards me throughout the conversation.
My motive in finding him was to do teshuva, to repent. In Jewish tradition this means to stop the offensive behavior, ask for forgiveness from the injured party, and resolve not to commit the sin again. The ideal setting for teshuva would require you to be in exactly the same place as before, and choose to do the right thing. Instead of succumbing to ego and personal hurt, you would respond differently and not make the ethical mistake that you did in the past. If the exact same situation did not present itself, then you would still follow essentially the same protocol of repentance.
In the Line of Fire is an action thriller; but at its core, it is a narrative of repentance. Frank Harrigan, a veteran Secret Service agent, is haunted by his failure to protect President Kennedy from assassination. He continually relives the incident in his mind and questions whether he did his best to guard the president from Oswald’s fatal bullet. Did he not protect him adequately because he feared for his own life? He wonders: “I don’t know why I didn’t react. If only I reacted, I could have taken that shot. That would have been alright with me.” Here lies the crux of the film: Frank is given an opportunity to protect another president from a threat to his life, and to redeem himself. He has a chance to do teshuva, to repent, in the ideal sense by facing the same challenge, but now he can make the right decision that will enable him to emerge whole again.
Things, however, are different now. He is older and wiser but physically he is weaker. He pants and sweats as he runs after the killer, and we wonder whether he possesses the physical stamina to protect the president. The climax of the film takes place in a large hotel where the president is scheduled to speak. Frank has to locate the killer and neutralize him or stand between him and the president and take the bullet intended for the president.
In the Yom Kippur liturgy, we ask for forgiveness for the sin we might not have remembered. Frank Harrigan’s story reminds us to remember the mistakes of the past, and to try to find a way to correct them even many years later. Confronting the past in this way allows us the freedom to move forward, knowing that we have done our best. The ghosts of the past will then no longer haunt us.