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Stuart Katz

What’s Wrong with Being a Bit Judgy? Understanding Judgment in the High Holidays

Introduction: Judgment and the High Holidays – A Time for Self-Reflection

As we edge closer to the ימים נוראים, we come face-to-face with the concept of divine judgment. It’s a time when many of us grapple with our actions, choices, and shortcomings over the past year. This season doesn’t merely serve as a spiritual inventory; it’s more like an annual celestial audit, where Hashem assesses our actions and intentions.

Now, you may be wondering, “Why all the judgment? Isn’t religion supposed to be about love, compassion, and understanding?” Well, let’s unpack that a bit. In Hebrew, the term for judgment is “דין” (Din), and while it might seem heavy-handed, it’s deeply embedded in Jewish tradition for a reason. The purpose isn’t to instill a sense of fear or inferiority but to prompt us to engage in תשובה — repentance and return. Judgment serves as a divine catalyst, propelling us to evaluate our lives, make amends, and aim for personal and spiritual growth.

This season is not about divine retribution but reflection, introspection, and transformation. It’s about Hashem, as a compassionate judge, offering us a chance to redefine our path for the upcoming year. It’s a period marked by solemnity, yes, but also by hope. It’s a time to be “judgy,” not dismissive or derogatory, but in a manner that promotes sincere self-assessment, challenging us to rise to our better selves. So, as we flip through the pages of our own life stories during this pivotal time, let’s do so with an openness to the lessons that judgment can bring.

The Trigger: Navigating Moral Anxiety During the Yamim Noraim

As we step into the ימים נוראים, the notion that “all deeds are being judged” (“וכל באי עולם יעברון לפניך כבני מרון”) can feel particularly heavy for those already wrestling with modern issues like moral anxiety or scrupulosity—a condition characterized by an excessive concern with moral or religious issues—the Days of Awe can exacerbate these feelings. It’s almost akin to the everyday triggers we experience, like the anxiety one might feel before a job performance review but amplified on a cosmic scale.

Today’s forward-thinking therapeutic modalities, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness, have given us practical tools to manage such triggers. They teach us to recognize our thought patterns and to pause, question, and reframe our cognitive distortions. The same strategies can be applied during this period of heightened spiritual awareness. We can look at the divine judgment not as a punitive, unforgiving audit but as a compassionate review aimed at helping us grow and achieve greater alignment with our values and Hashem.

This perspective ties in nicely with the essence of Rosh Hashanah, which isn’t just about the “Book of Life” being opened; it’s about a new chapter in our lives being opened. A chapter where we can rewrite or edit the narrative, using the triggers not as stumbling blocks but as stepping stones toward a more spiritually aligned life.

So, while the concept of divine judgment might spark heightened anxiety, framing it within a therapeutic context helps us see it as an opportunity for self-improvement and spiritual growth. We’re not alone in this journey; just as we seek professional help for managing everyday triggers, our spiritual traditions and communities are here to guide us through these emotionally complex ימים נוראים.

A Lighter Perspective

Ah, the ימים נוראים —our annual rendezvous with the cosmic auditor! Imagine Hashem scrolling through our “soul sheets” with the same scrutiny we reserve for Excel during tax season. But relax, even if your spiritual “formulas” have errors, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are like the “Ctrl + Z” of the soul. While our everyday challenges might make us feel like we’re just balancing columns of good deeds and mistakes, these sacred days offer a chance to clean the slate, or as we say, תשובה. So, as we grapple with everything from global crises to Zoom fatigue, let’s cherish this divine opportunity for a soul audit without the spreadsheet stress.

Tips for Coping

Navigating the emotional and spiritual complexities of the ימים נוראים is no small feat, especially given the additional burdens of our tumultuous times. Whether you’re grappling with geopolitical strife in Israel, the spread of disinformation abroad, or even the personal challenges of post-pandemic living, it’s essential to remember that judgment isn’t the end—it’s a pathway to renewal.

The Hebrew term תשובה encapsulates this beautifully; it’s not merely about repentance but also about returning to a better version of oneself. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer an annual “system reboot” for the soul, a chance to close unwanted ‘tabs’ and ‘clear the cache’ of last year’s missteps.

As this year’s ימים נוראים approach, consider setting aside some time for חשבון הנפש, an accounting of the soul. This self-reflection can be your spiritual SWAT analysis, helping each of us identify our Weaknesses and Threats and Strengths and Opportunities for growth.

So, instead of perceiving the ימים נוראים as a court trial, let’s try and see them as our strategy for meeting with the Divine. It’s a time to realign our actions with our values, reassess our goals, and lay down a feasible action plan for the coming year. After all, coping isn’t just about surviving—it’s about thriving in the face of life’s challenges, be they in Israel, abroad, or within the walls of our home.

Conclusion

When the ימים נוראים approach and talk of divine judgment fills the air, it’s natural for a sense of trepidation to creep in. However, it’s crucial to remember that this period is not merely about doom and gloom. It’s a powerful season that embodies the Hebrew concept of תיקון עולם – repairing the world – starting with us. The celestial spotlight isn’t meant to intimidate us but to illuminate the corners of our lives that may need a little תיקון, or repair.

The word דין, often called judgment, can also mean “law” or “justice.” It’s a framework, a guideline Hashem gives us to live meaningful, fulfilling lives. So, when we stand before the divine בית דין, or court, think of it as a compassionate audit that aims not to condemn but to help us find our way back to righteousness and harmony.

In essence, the ימים נוראים is less about fearing what we’ve done wrong and more about embracing the incredible potential for what we can do right. This ימים נוראים, as we flip through the pages of the Machzor and our own lives, let’s not forget that every ending is also a new beginning. In that spirit, let’s seize this opportunity for some heavenly housekeeping, sweeping away last year’s regrets to make room for new blessings and growth.

About the Author
Stuart is a co-founder of the Nafshenu Alenu mental health educational initiative founded in 2022. He currently serves on the Board of Visitors of McLean Hospital, affiliated with Harvard University Medical School. He serves as Chairman of the Board of OGEN – Advancement of Mental Health Awareness in Israel; chairman of Mental Health First Aid Israel and a partner in “Deconstructing Stigma” in Israel. He is on the Board of Directors of the Religious Conference Management Association. He has counseled over 7,000 individuals and families in crisis
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