Guilt: Blessings and Challenges

The article below is adapted from a Yom Kippur sermon I shared with my congregation a few days ago. I hope that its message will resonate with readers even as we move through the celebrations of Sukkot and next week’s holidays.

Yom Kippur is all about guilt. It is called the Day of Atonement, but what Yom Kippur is really about is dealing with our guilt. Again and again and again – all through Yom Kippur – we rise, bend our shoulders forward and klap our chests as we confess our sins. Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu, Debarnu dofi, We are guilty, we have acted deviously, we have robbed, we have spoken slander …

From alef to tav and in some translations from A-Z, we profess our guilt and ask for G-d’s mercy and forgiveness. We go through the motions – standing, beating our chests, reading lists of sins – but what are we really doing? Once, in a synagogue where the custom was to read the list of sins aloud in English, a congregant was overheard asking – in a voice loud enough for all to hear – “what the hell is xenophobia?”

That man is not the only one confused by this ritual. What is the point of all these confessions? A part of the problem is the translation. What is xenophobia and effrontery? Beyond the specific words, the mahzor confronts us with fundamental questions: what is guilt? What is its purpose? What are we supposed to do with it?

Rebbe Nachman of Breslav taught: The idea of vidui (verbal confession) is not to wallow in guilt and self-recrimination. It is to give frank and honest expression to conflicting thoughts and feelings, and take responsibility for any mistakes. This is what lays the foundation for more positive attitudes and behavior in the future.

Rabbi Eliyahu E. Dessler, adds: It is natural for a person to try and forget unpleasant incidents of the past, saying, “What has passed is passed. From this point on, we will start a new chapter.” But the truth is, without a deep sense of guilt, the influence of the past is not weakened at all, even after many years.

This positive view of guilt as a motivating force for change runs counter to our contemporary sensibility. On TV commercials, we are urged to enjoy indulgences “guilt-free”. If we feel guilt, we are encouraged to see a therapist to get rid of it. We are champions at rationalizing our own behavior even as we blame others for their hurtful words and actions.

What is guilt? Guilt is a feeling of remorse we get when there is dissonance between our behavior and our ideals, between our actions and our moral standards.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski, noted author and psychiatrist, distinguishes between guilt and shame. “Guilt is about what a person did and it can be a constructive feeling in that it can lead one to teshuvah, to take corrective action. Shame, however, is about what one feels he is.

“In other words, guilt is ‘I made a mistake.’ – and I can learn from it and move forward.” Shame is feeling, “I am inherently flawed. There is nothing I can do to change that. With guilt, there is hope of improvement, but not with shame.”

To Rebbetzin Faige Twerski, a Jewish educator, “Jewish guilt is present and future oriented. It maintains that to err is human and no experience in life is a failure if we learn from it and are modified by it.”

Shame “keeps one enmeshed in the past, wallowing and repeatedly obsessing about past wrongdoing and misdeeds. It leaves one feeling unworthy and unredeemable.”

This distinction between guilt and shame, between our mistakes and our essence, between what we do and who we are, is a difference of life and death. Guilt can lead to reconciliation, new beginnings and life. Shame can kill you.

I got the call that he was dead when I was in Israel accompanying an 8th grade class trip in May. Joel Wasser – my childhood friend, USY buddy, college roommate, rabbinical school classmate, talented, dedicated and beloved rabbinic colleague, and devoted son, brother, husband, father, friend – was dead. A suicide.

At his packed funeral, Joel Wasser was remembered for his kindness and intelligence, passion and exuberance. His children courageously acknowledged their father’s depression and its attendant alcoholism. They expressed their love and forgiveness.

Pills ended his life; despair is what killed him. And what is true about my friend, Joel, is true about so many of the 40,000 Americans who kill themselves every year and the million more who make an attempt to take their lives each year.

As Dr. Mark Gouslston wrote following the suicide of Robin Williams, “When over time and in an unrelenting way you feel utterly alone and feel that you and your life don’t matter, death becomes you.”

It is so hard to understand the sense of hopelessness and worthlessness of such giving, talented and beloved people like Robin Williams and Joel Wasser. The ironies are cruel. As my friend’s daughter said at the funeral, “I wish you had been able to help yourself, the way that you were able to help so many others.”

Yet depression and other mental health issues do not lead inevitably to suicide. It is possible for us to get help.

Mental health issues are as real and treatable as our physical health challenges.

What can we do to normalize issues of mental health in our Jewish community and offer support to those of us who are dealing with these challenges?

How can we be encouraged to get the help we need to be mentally and emotionally healthy?

What can be done to change the perception – still today in 2014 – that mental health struggles are a function of a lack of character or weakness of will, a profound moral failure?

How can our synagogues be places that provide a sense of connection among individuals and a feeling of belonging – where all are truly welcomed, supported and valued?

In this effort, we are not alone. Elijah’s Journey – a Jewish suicide prevention organization – was founded five years ago after Efrem Epstein attended World Suicide Awareness Day at the United Nations. “One of the things I learned that day at the U.N. was that suicide prevention and awareness is most effective within one’s own community,” he said. “As Jews, we have specific concerns and issues that other communities might not have.”

Over the years, my friend, Joel, and I spoke frequently. Typically, before the holidays we would have a conversation that went something like this – “Do you moychel me? I’ll moychel you if you moychel me.” – playfully fulfilling the practice of asking for and granting forgiveness. Last year’s conversation was different. After years of supporting Joel through his struggles, I had withdrawn. I did not always accept his phone calls. When we spoke last erev Rosh Hashanah, I genuinely apologized for having been distant. We spoke honestly about his challenges and about the difficulties of being supportive over many years. I shared my fears with him. We apologized and we forgave each other.

This year, I have really missed my phone calls with Joel. Year after year, he would tease me about my struggles to complete my high holiday sermons. And every year, we would moychel each other. And now, missing my friend, I can’t fully accept the reality and finality of his death – I can’t even delete his name from my favorites on my iPhone. This year – more than ever – I wish to hear Joel say – “Ron, I moychel you.”

What do I do with my guilt – my share of the responsibility for this profound and senseless loss?

I use Yom Kippur to process my guilt over this, the same way that you are called upon to work through the guilt you feel over your actions or inactions this past year.

Like an elementary school kid staring in the mirror on picture day, on Yom Kippur we scrutinize ourselves and transform the process of tshuva from a sacred rite performed by rote to a personal, authentic and life transforming process of making amends, letting go and beginning again.

Maimonides gives us a five-step structure for doing tshuva – turning, returning to G-d and to what we are called upon to be.






The first step is to recognize our mistakes. Just noticing requires our time and effort, honesty and compassion. This mental awareness is followed by regret. It is not enough to know that we have hurt someone, we must feel and experience our impact on others. Recognition and regret are followed by action. We must remove ourselves, we must stop repeating our harmful actions.

The next step is to verbally confess our mistakes to G-d and to those affected. It can be as simple as “I am sorry that I was impatient with you.” “I am sorry that I did not give you the benefit of the doubt.” “I am sorry that I let you down.” And beyond words, we must make whole those whom we have hurt. By admitting the hurt we have done and providing restitution, we make the transgression real. Finally, the Rambam is teaching us to envision a different future. Resolving that we will not repeat our misdeeds again may seem disingenuous; we wonder: is it really possible for us to change? can I really promise never to get impatient with the kids, again? – but through this multiple stage process of tshuva – especially actively listening to those we have hurt – we are being invited to believe that change is possible.

We do not need to be defined by our mistakes and shortcomings. There is no shame in feeling guilty, if that guilt leads us to move forward positively.

That is why we have Yom Kippur – to work through the tshuva process. Yes, it is important to stand in solidarity with our fellow Jews throughout the world and throughout time to confess jointly as one community – we are each other’s brothers and sisters. And, it is equally important for us to use the Rambam’s steps to work through the process of exploring guilt – within ourselves and in our relationships with other people and with G-d. Yom Kippur is not just for big sins – murder, idolatry, and adultery. Whatever our sins – impatience, gossip, dishonesty, stubbornness, laziness – Yom Kippur is an opportunity for all of us to clean the slate and begin again anew.

Yom Kippur is a day to confront and work with our guilt, a day to open our hearts and a day to be mindful of the difference between guilt and shame and to get help – without any stigma or self-consciousness – if we feel a persistent feeling of shame.

Many years ago, my friend, Rabbi Joel Wasser, noted that in the process of doing tshuva, we traditionally begin with repenting before G-d and only afterwards seek to do tshuva with people. Joel explained that G-d is wired to accept tshuva; people are not always so wired.

Let us approach others to do tshuva and let us train ourselves to offer mechilah; let us be forgiving.

Joel, I pledge to you that I will use my guilt over your death constructively to support your family in any ways I can and to raise awareness about suicide and mental health issues in the Jewish community and beyond.

And I moychel you. I pardon you. I recognize that you were in great despair when you ended your life. I know that you did not intend to cause others so much pain. I pray that your death can help prevent others from suffering as you did and ending their own lives. And I pray that your legacy of Torah and good deeds will be carried on through your family and all blessed by your presence.

To all, I wish a meaningful day of confronting and transforming your guilt.

With you, I turn to G-d for help and offer this prayer, written by Rabbi Katie Mizrahi:

“Holy One of Blessing, as we move through this day of honest self-appraisal and heartfelt prayer, help us to be gentle with ourselves, even as we are honest. Inspire us to take our insights from this day and translate them into healing reconciliations with our loved ones and any others we my have harmed. May we find in ourselves and in one another points of goodness and light to gather and encourage. Bring us to the closing of this day clean and ready to begin anew with hope and joy.”

About the Author
Ron Muroff is a rabbi and life coach in Harrisburg PA.
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