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Shayna Abramson

Teshuva: A Guilt-Free Process?

Tonight, is Selichot night — Ashkenazi Jews around the world will gather to confess our sins and begin the spiritual preparation for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Sefardi communities have already been saying Selichot since the beginning of Elul.

These days bring me back to a spiritual struggle I have throughout the year. Sometimes I feel like there are two Shaynas inside of me.

There is Shayna One, who believes in an All-Merciful God of Kindness, and trusts in Him. This Shayna witnesses the daily miracles of the world around her, like sunshine and the scent of roses, as well as the big moment miracles, like heart surgery and childbirth.

Then there is Shayna Two, who is in a state of fear. When there is a happy moment, Shayna Two can think of 50 ways it could go wrong. Shayna Two feels guilty and worthy of Divine punishment, feeding her anxiety.

Most of my religious work throughout the year is focused on amplifying the voice of Shayna One and decreasing the voice of Shayna Two. I try to focus on having a joyful connection to God, and on teaching an ethics of Torah and halacha that is rooted in belief in a God who cares deeply about His Creations.

But during the month of Elul and leading into Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, much of the liturgy is focused on feelings of fear and guilt -of going over everything we did wrong, of allowing us to think of the negative possibilities in life that we usually try to suppress from our minds, and of focusing on God’s as the Judge.

I find this time incredibly spiritually and emotionally challenging.*

But recently I realized that if teshuva is a process that is supposed to bring me closer to God, and I want my connection to God to be joyful and believe in a God who loves me and wants me to love myself, true teshuva cannot be rooted in fear and self-loathing.

That is why, over the past few years, I have begun to focus on a different way of connecting to this time in the Jewish calendar. I have begun to focus on teshuva as a process of forgiving myself.

This does not mean not holding myself accountable. I look at what I have done, and think of where I went wrong and how I can do better. But I try to do so from a place that sees my holistic self, as an imperfect being who is trying and struggling to Be and Be Good in this universe, and whose wrongs are committed in the context of that trying. I try to do so from a place that recognizes that God who created human beings knows that human beings make mistakes, and chose to create us that way in order to give us freedom of choice — it’s precisely because God knows that we make mistakes that He gave us Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in the first place.

I try to spend time during these days actively reminding myself of the good in me and meditating on self-forgiveness, even if it’s only for five minutes before I go to sleep. This is the spiritual preparation I need to then be able to face the words of the liturgy, of “For this sin” and “We have been guilty”, without letting Shayna Two take over.

There is a trend in recent years to change part of the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur liturgy that sound harsh, or to balance them by supplementing more positive liturgy during the service, like “confessions” of all the good we have done throughout the year. Although I believe these practices can be helpful to some, I do generally believe that it is important to have a place, both physically and spiritually, to state all the negatives without sugar-coating them or reciting the positives immediately after.

But what we do outside of the formal prayer structure is up to us. And this is where rabbis and teachers really come in. If Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the days that set the tone for one’s connection with God throughout the year and are supposed to be an expression of one’s deepest self, what kind of connection with God are we encouraging in how we teach Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur?

It is up to us, in how we speak about these days and in how we respond to people who come to us for spiritual guidance to ensure that these days do not become a month-long guilt-fest or a festival of anxiety and self-loathing.

As I write these words, I still feel the two Shaynas inside of me, but I choose to focus on Shayna One smiling at me, holding her hand out and beckoning me to join her for a cup of coffee.

*I imagine that this time of self-reflection, with the accompanying guilt, could be even more difficult for a person who has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, or any number of mental illnesses that could be affected by a focus on one’s wrongdoings. Many of these challenges are being addressed by Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig and his Maaglei Nefesh organization. In the cases of people who may struggle with mental health challenges, it is especially important for rabbis and teachers to be attuned to how High Holy Days may affect those challenges, and also to know the limits of our own expertise, to seek counsel from professionals in the field, and to not try to replace psychologists.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.