On Yom Kippur we talk about making amends for our past misdeeds. For many people, thinking about the past is a catalyst for guilt. “I am okay now but I feel guilty about my past,” is something I have heard often. But this is a mistaken thought because guilt causes despair; it destroys, prevents rehabilitation, and is an obstacle to making a personal change. It is ironic that Jews are associated with guilt and so much Jewish humor revolves around it but there is no room for it in Judaism, to the contrary it might even be considered evil. Why?
A sense of guilt derives from a judgment of oneself, not his or her actions. A guilty person is not interested in what happens; (s)he is interested in his or her personal success or failure. For example, if what bothers me is the evil I have done, then I need to correct it but if I mope around feeling guilty because I am terrible, I am unworthy, I am a failure, I am worthless, there is one common denominator-I . It is self-centered way to view one’s past. The question is not whether I am good or bad, what matters is that can I do something about it and correct it.
This doesn’t mean that I am not sorry about my past action. I am sorry but do not feel guilty because bad actions need to be addressed but do not turn the perpetrator into a monster. When a person does not get involved with self, the guilty feeling dissipates and the desire to correct emanates; feelings of guilt disappear and are replaced by feelings of remorse and regret. Only then can I find the strength to correct the situation and look for another find a way to mitigate the suffering I have caused. However, the self-destructiveness of guilt will not motivate me to rectify what I have done because it is not me that I need to measure; actions are what I measure. People who suffer from feelings of guilt are measuring themselves and therefore suffer from feelings about self. Although they might not realize it, they alone are the cause of the self-destructive path in which they find themselves.
With this in mind, we can begin to understand the importance of the atonement opportunity Yom Kippur provides. It is not about guilt, it is about understanding that atonement means that my past is real and still exists; my actions have the ability to affect people. When I understand this, I have an interest in seeing my society as a moral society because I have the ability to affect something; my values, lifestyle and actions influence the society in which I live and the values and lifestyle of the society in which I live affects me. Therefore, my negative behavior of the past year is absolute; it exists and will affect my reality, judgment and actions. I will not have the same clarity, purity and confidence as I would have had if I had not have done the regretful things I did. I need teshuva (“to return” myself to who I really am) to acknowledge that I acted in a way that is not representative of the life I wish to personify. Yom Kippur is an essential part of the process that enables me to have an improved future.
Many people dread Yom Kippur and see it as a day they are forced to be hungry and sit bored in the synagogue all day. This is a tragic mistake because Yom Kippur is a day of opportunity. It is a time when we are forced to confront ourselves, our thoughts and actions. Fasting is one of the means to steer us away from self and allow us to focus on the task of the day-to begin to make an effort to understand, accept, and deal with ourselves and realize that our actions-the good, bad, and the ugly-really matter are impactful.
Mitzvot are divided into two categories, those between people as they relate to G-d and those between how people related to one another. But there is a third category, between the person and him/herself. We are not only asked to develop our relationship with G-d (first category) and achieve positive results on behalf of the people in our lives (second category), but also to transform ourselves as well. This third category is aimed at ensuring that we do not limit our focus only to actions, instead, we must look at the inner motivation and evaluate ourselves. We must learn not only what G-d wants from us, but who He wants us to be.
Do you want to be introduced to yourself? Yom Kippur has the ability to do so if you allow it work its magic. The ancient prayers, laws, and rituals have provided this opportunity to Jews for centuries.
May we all reap the benefits of Yom Kippur, a day of unique opportunity, and feel neither guilt nor fear when we are introduced to our real selves.
Gmar Chatima Tova-May you be written and inscribed for a good life and peace.