Guilt vs Shame

September 1, 2014
Rodin's Eve after the Fall.

Eve after the Fall, by Rodin

The soul-searching of Elul can be healthy and productive. It helps us to get back on track. It can provide the push we need to resolve unfinished business. It can allow us to start the new year with a clean slate and a clean conscience.

One way to get off track, though, is to get confused about the difference between guilt and shame.

Guilt is the fact or state of having committed an offense. The feeling of guilt is useful: it’s a feeling of responsibility for having done (or failed to do) the deed in question. It might include remorse at the behavior in question. Guilt says “I did something” or “I neglected to do something.” 

Guilt is redeemable. It is fixable. The way to cure guilt is to make teshuvah. I wrote a post a while back called The Jewish Cure for Guilt about how to deal with guilt.

There are a lot of jokes about “Jewish guilt” but those jokes are not really about guilt. They are about shame.

Shame says, “I am a bad person because X.” Shame wracks the soul and can twist a psyche into a pretzel. Shame is not useful, although people try to use it on each other all the time. Shame may or may not be connected to a particular deed; it’s misery connected to a person’s sense of him- or herself.

Shame is paralyzing. Shame denies the possibility of redemption or change.

Shame requires healing. Part of that healing may be to deal with guilt over things that we have actually done. (See article about the cure for guilt.) The rest of the healing requires a healing of shame about things that were not our doing: things that were done to us, things that were said to us, things that were out of our control. We human beings like to think we’re in control of everything, so some of the healing comes when we acknowledge that we don’t control as much of the world as we’d like.

This Elul, as you do the work of this month, pay attention to your feelings. If you notice that you are in extraordinary pain, or if the list of things to repent seems endless and overwhelming, consider seeking help: a trusted friend, a counselor, a therapist, your rabbi. Elul is for making ourselves and the world better. Sometimes that happens by letting go of shame.


An Upbeat Take on Elul

August 31, 2014

Feeling downbeat after a week of soul-searching? Feeling discouraged, knowing that there are three more weeks to Rosh HaShanah?  Here’s a video that both celebrates the joy of the coming new year and speaks to the task of making ourselves new in time for it:

It’s a classic from the Maccabeats. Enjoy!


#BlogElul – Accept (for Now)

August 29, 2014

Kinetic photography

Shabbat

is the day

when we sit with the world as it is.

We accept the Now.

I may notice

something needs fixing,

needs action

needs a letter to the editor but

on Shabbat I must sit

accept the unacceptable

for a few hours.

I must wait for the stars.

Then I may fly

like an arrow from the bow of Shabbat:

potential

unleashed.

 

         ——-

Image by theSmart77 some rights reserved


Growing into Shabbat

August 29, 2014
Shabbat on a card table.

Shabbat on a card table.

How does a person begin to keep Shabbat?

Maybe you’ve read a description of Shabbat observance, and found it overwhelming or just plain impossible. Or perhaps you had relatives who did observe Shabbat, and the way they went about it left you feeling that it was a burden, not a joy.

And now it’s Elul, and the High Holy Days are coming, and perhaps some of you are thinking that you’d LIKE to keep Shabbat, but… (you fill in the blank.)

So let me suggest another approach. If you want to keep Shabbat, pick ONE THING on this list that you aren’t already doing.

1. Light candles Friday night.

2. Set aside some part of Friday night or Saturday for a family meal.

3. Go to services at a nearby synagogue.

4. Set aside the 24 hours of Shabbat as a “no-nagging” time zone, or maybe just Friday night.

5. Read a commentary or d’var Torah on this week’s Torah portion. (You can find it here.)

6. Call or write to someone you love.

7. Do something you don’t usually give yourself time to do: take a walk in nature, for instance.

8. Have wine or juice with dinner Friday night, and say a blessing (English is fine.)

9. Turn off your cell phone and/or computer for part or all of the day.

10. Choose not to do any shopping from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Let whatever it is wait.

Now, try that ONE THING it out this Shabbat. Afterwards, ask yourself:

How did that feel? Do I want to do it again?

If so, do it again. If not, pick something else on the list and try it. Later, you can add something, when you are ready. Add no more than one thing at a time.

This is how a person grows into Shabbat.

 

 

 

 

 


#BlogElul – Bless Your Heart!

August 28, 2014

heart“Bless your heart!”

The urban dictionary and my not-Southern friends tell me that these words are the way Southerners tell a person that he or she is a fool without actually saying so.

This grieves me.

I grew up using this phrase to express genuine sympathy. There may be parts of the Southeast US where people use it sarcastically, but I guess I’m from a different part of the South. Or maybe I’m such a fool that I didn’t realize it was sarcasm.

It springs to my lips when a friend tells me that they have cancer, or that their dog died. I know I can’t do or say anything that will fix things. All I can do is express my solidarity with their situation, and those are the words with which I learned to do it. The phrase springs directly from my own heart to theirs: “Bless your heart!”

In good times, a blessing is a celebration of the good. In bad times, it is a fervent wish for better times. In Jewish tradition, it is a pause in the flood of experience to stop, to pay attention, to be present.

I think the world would be a better place if we blessed each other more often.

So know that if I say to you, “Bless your heart!” I’m not being sarcastic. I’m just the kind of fool that loves blessings.


What’s a Mitzvah?

August 27, 2014

“What’s a mitzvah?” a reader recently asked.

If you look it up in the Hebrew dictionary, it will tell you that a mitzvah is a commandment.

“Commandment” in English implies that it comes from outside, and it isn’t my choice. And yet each mitzvah IS a choice: I can keep it, or I can neglect it. It’s up to me. These duties are rooted in Torah, but they are acted out in my life, and in the lives of my fellow Jews.

I prefer to think of mitzvot (that’s the plural) as my sacred duties. Whether they are as lofty as saying my prayers, or as mundane as paying workers on time, they increase the holiness in the world, and they are choices I make every moment of every day. I do not get a gold star for doing them. They are just what I do as a Jew.

This month I’m asking myself: which of my sacred duties have I neglected? Which have I done poorly, done for ego, done only when someone is looking? Which have I treated as truly sacred?

How can I do better?

This post is inspired by #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, also known as @imabima.

 


1st Week of Elul

August 26, 2014
new moon

New Moon

It’s very dark outside tonight. It’s the first night of the month of Elul.

Elul is the last month of the Jewish year. A month from tonight will be Rosh HaShanah. Between now and then, there is work to do. It’s time for a personal inventory.

Tonight I will say my prayers and look at that dark sky. Tonight, I will ask the questions and I will not rush to the answers, because now there is time to let the true answers emerge:

Against whom might I have sinned in the past year?

Some of them are people I know personally. I avoided them, failed to return their calls, whispered about them, excluded them, hurt their feelings, embarrassed them, neglected them, or ignored them. I failed them in some way, large or small.

Some of them are people I don’t know personally. I dismissed them as a group. I thought I knew all I needed to know. I made pronouncements about them. I forgot that “they” are individuals with hopes and dreams, each of them some mother’s child. I forgot that they are made in the Divine Image, just like me.

This first week, I will make an honest effort to identify all the people towards whom I need to make teshuvah. I will figure out, too, what behaviors and attitudes I will need to change in order to make teshuvah, a genuine new path. I will think about what I can change, and what I cannot, to whom I can apologize and for whom an apology would only cause more hurt. In the latter case, I will need to think even harder what to do, in order to put wrongs right.

Before I can do any of this, I need to sit and think and be honest with myself. That is my task this first week of Elul.

For sins against God the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against human beings the Day of Atonement does not atone until the injured party has been appeased. – Mishnah Yoma 8:9

 

 

 


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