As he prepares for death, Moses lays a major guilt trip on the people. “Well I know how defiant and stiff-necked you are: even now, while I am still alive in your midst, you have been defiant toward the Eternal; how much more, then, when I am dead! … For I know that, when I am dead, you will act wickedly and turn away from the path that I enjoined upon you, and that in time to come misfortune will befall you for having done evil in the sight of the Eternal whom you vexed by your deeds” (Deut 31:27, 29).
Jewish guilt: It’s the punch line of so many Jewish jokes, usually involving Jewish mothers. “Don’t worry about me…I’ll sit in the dark…” Over the years, I, like many, have struggled with feelings of guilt, trying to come to terms with those times that I missed the mark and was not my best self. “Could I have done better when my mom was so sick during my teen years? Could I have been more patient, more thoughtful?” For sure it is never wise to linger too close to be unforgiving to oneself, but guilt can be a powerful tool for shaping an individual soul and, perhaps, a whole society. Guilt, although so difficult to carry, is one of the most useful tools we have during this season, when we take cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, and make our way to true repentance.
This week’s parashah, Vayeilech, helps us understand this High Holy Day season. Once upon a time, relieving ourselves of guilt and sin was much simpler and more immediate than today. In ancient Israel, religion not only defined what was right and wrong, but also gave people something to DO when they felt burdened by doing wrong (sins of commission) or by not doing right (sins of omission). Chapters 4 and 5 of Leviticus describe how when someone felt he had not lived up to God’s expectation, he could bring a sacrifice, a chatat (sin-offering) or an asham (guilt offering), to the altar.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book, How Good Do We Have To Be?, explains the following: The purpose of the sacrifice was to remind the individual of his better nature, to say to himself, “I would like to be perfect, but I know I am not. Only God is perfect. Sometimes I am weak and thoughtless. And I have many regrets. But look here: sometimes I can be strong and generous and disciplined. I am not a bad person. More often than not, I do the right thing. Here is proof of that. Please accept this offering, release me from this guilt, and grant me forgiveness.”
I, like others, may envy the ancient Israelites who had a physical mechanism to relieve themselves of guilt. We have a much harder road to walk today. As Rabbi Yael Splansky describes in a wonderful commentary, “No longer does a kohein guide us from weakness to strength like a personal trainer of the spirit. Instead our Sages provide guidelines for how we might find our own way to t’shuvah – not with fire and stone, flesh and blood, but with introspection, reflection, apology, and the ability to change.”
“My sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:5). Such statements give organized religion a bad rap. Words like “guilt” and “sin” make us shudder. Many today put religion on trial, accusing it of being a source of unhealthy guilt and even shame. But religion is, or should be, the cure for guilt, not the cause. Feelings of guilt are part of the human experience. Religion can be the way to confront our guilt and move beyond it by putting it to work.
During the High Holy Days we gather in public to do a very private thing: we tally our sins. The all-knowing God does not need to keep score, so why do we do this? The machzor’s endless lists of sins come to teach that we are “only” accountable for our actions and inactions. We are not called to change our whole person, but ‘simply’ our deeds. Moses did not say in his rebuke, “You ARE wicked;” he said, “You will ACT wickedly.” He did not threaten, “God will be vexed by YOU;” rather he warned, “God will be vexed by your DEEDS” (Deut 31:29). Similarly, the Days of Awe do not say: “Be ashamed of who you are.” They say: “Do better.” They say: “You are created in the image of God. Now act like it.”
When we drop all pretensions and excuses, when we carry our guilt in our hands and offer it up as a kind of sacrifice on the altar, let us believe that God will not reject us, but in the words of our Haftarah, God “will take us back in love” (Micah 7:19). In this way, the High Holy Days are a kind of homecoming. Robert Frost famously wrote: “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in.” This week we walk slowly to the doorstep of the Day of Atonement. With heavy hearts filled with guilt and regret, we stand with shoulders bent, chin low. We may ask: “How can I do better? How can I be more thoughtful, more empathetic, more patient?”
Rabbi Splansky put it so beautifully, so I want to share her words, “It’s cold and lonely outside,” she says, “so we raise a hand, and knock at the door. The door opens – or in the words of our machzor, ‘The gates open.’ And we step inside.”
May we all be able to distinguish between our actions and our inherent worth. Let us recognize that we are not perfect, nor should we expect to be. And, may we all have the needed confidence to challenge ourselves to do better, knowing that inherently, deep inside, we are, indeed, good people.