When I was a synagogue rabbi, a very agitated young man once confessed to me that when his girlfriend revealed that she was pregnant, he broke off his relationship with her and told her to get an abortion. Now, several months later, he was overwhelmed by guilt. Life had moved on; he could no longer correct the situation, and he was very depressed and upset with what he did. Despite his insensitivity, his irresponsibility and his moral weakness, I intuitively understood he needed to feel that all was not lost. It was important to transmit the message that failure is not terminal. You can make terrible mistakes, but you can perform redemptive acts that mitigate punishment. This is an important life lesson.
Tristan and Isolde deals with young people who make grave mistakes in judgment and the consequences of those mistakes. It is a tragic love story that takes place in medieval times when war raged between the British and Irish. The English are divided into clans and are routinely attacked and killed by the Irish. Lord Marke of Cornwall plans to unite the various tribes of Britain by becoming king and leading a united people to victory over the Irish. Marke is respected by most of the lords; his courageous demeanor in battle adds to his luster and the promise of his inspiring leadership.
Joining him in battle is Tristan, an orphan boy, who was saved from certain death by Lord Marke. Tristan is a loyal and brave warrior and fulfills Marke’s expectations as his heir apparent. But in a fierce contest with the Irish, he is wounded by a poisoned sword, and assumed to be dead. His funeral boat washes up on the Irish coast, where he is found by Isolde, the king’s daughter, and her maid. Slowly, he is nursed to health and Tristan and Isolde fall in love. However, circumstances force him to return to Britain.
Through a series of events, Tristan is reunited with Isolde in Britain, but she is now promised to Lord Marke as a wife by her father. She reluctantly goes through with the wedding, but the love which began on the shores of Ireland runs deep. Passions rage and Tristan and Isolde begin an illicit relationship that both know is doomed.
From the beginning, they are conflicted. Tristan says “I feel on fire and a guilt I can’t comodify.” Isolde agonizes: “Why does loving you feel so wrong?” It is a tortured relationship, in which two souls are divided by loyalty to a dear friend and benefactor, Lord Marke, and a burning desire to forget all moral boundaries and commit to loving one another in spite of what people say or think.
Lord Marke recognizes that their commitment to one another predated his marriage to Isolde and, in a magnanimous gesture, offers them an opportunity to escape together. At that moment, however, Tristan understands what is at stake for Lord Marke and the nation. He sends Isolde away, reminding her that if they were to flee together “for all time people would say it was our love that brought down a kingdom.” Duty triumphs over personal feelings and Tristan joins the battle against the Irish, ultimately sustaining a mortal wound.
Our Sages tell us that one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than the entire life in the world to come, and that one can acquire eternal life in one moment of repentance. The sin of Tristan and Isolde cannot be dismissed. It is an egregious moral fault. But while we are alive, we can still influence our spiritual future. One selfless act, even one committed by a sinner, can change our eternal destiny and the destiny of others.