The Jewish Cure for Guilt

April 11, 2013
Open Gate

(Photo credit: Open Gate Farm)

Rabbi Channanya bar Papa asked Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, what is the meaning of the verse (Psalm), “As for me I will offer my prayer unto Thee in an acceptable time “? He replied, “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance are always open.” - Devarim Rabbah, II.

I’m a perfectionist, very hard on myself. If I goof up, my anger with myself is beyond all reason. This is a not attractive, but it is the way I am.

When I was a young woman, I believed that mistakes were fatal. Mess up, and no one will ever love me again.  Ever.  Go to Hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200.  The real problem, of course, was getting me to ever love me again. And in the meantime, because I was flopping around in an agony of guilt, I’d hide or lie or get defensive, or do anything to try to escape getting a cross word from someone else, because I thought I couldn’t bear it – I was already my own private Spanish Inquisition. In the meantime, the wrong would compound like interest in a banker’s wildest dream: the person I offended or hurt would be more hurt.

Judaism offers me something wonderful: an actual plan for dealing with my mistakes. It gives me the gift of teshuvah (repentance.) When I make a mistake, when I do something wrong, I just have to follow the steps of teshuvah:

LEAVE THE SIN  I have to recognize that what I did was wrong and I have to resolve to make teshuvah.

REGRET I have to be genuinely sorry and embarrassed that I did such a thing.  This step I do quite well – a Catholic childhood and a Jewish adulthood add up to a finely tuned duet of guilt. My trouble was that I used to stop here, wallowing in misery. This is not the place to stop!  Move quickly to the next step:

SINCERE APOLOGY AND REQUEST FOR FORGIVENESS I have to go to the person I offended or hurt or failed in some way, and take responsibility for my actions. Taking responsibility also means listening to their reaction. Then I have to ask for forgiveness.

CONFESSION BEFORE GOD Then, having apologized, I have to go through the whole thing again, aloud, before God. Early on, I was suspicious of this step; it seemed excessive. I have found, though, that without it I lack the resources to make a good job of the last step:

RESOLVING NEVER TO REPEAT THIS SIN This requires more than a wish; it requires a plan. I have to figure out how I am not ever going to see a repeat of this particular failure, and I have to put that plan into action.

The gift is, that when I do a good job of teshuvah, that crushing, tearing misery of guilt will lift. I will feel better, and what’s more, so will some of those people against whom I sinned.

Lately I’ve been going through a patch of sins. They’ve been largely sins of disorganization, and they have come about because my workload has increased and I have not set myself up to be adequately organized.  Other errors were not intentional, but they affected other people, nevertheless. So now I’m following up with a patch of teshuvah: noticing the messes, feeling mortified, apologizing and doing what I can to make things right, having some serious prayer sessions, and making plans for change. Not fun now, but the results are worth it: while I will always be sorry I messed up (I’d rather be perfect, after all!) I won’t feel that gut-wrenching guilt.

I’m sharing this because I suspect I am not  the only person who wants to disappear through the floor or hide under the furniture every time she fouls up.  If any of this sounds familiar, you might want to give teshuvah a try. We have a season of it, of course, every late summer and fall, but why wait? Relief from your pain is only a few steps away: the gates of repentance, they say, are always open.


Counting the Bites

August 22, 2012
The Grudge?

The Grudge? (Photo credit: riacale)

When I was a child growing up in Tennessee, I used to count the mosquito bites on my body. I could tell you exactly how many I had at any given time, where they were, and which ones itched the most. I could not escape the bugs, but I could keep a perfect accounting of what they were doing to me.

I was on the watch for every slightest itch. I knew when one bit me, and I knew when the bite began to tingle. I paid careful attention to each of them. Because I was always thinking about them, I could not resist scratching at them. As a result, I was miserable most of the summer.

It was years before it dawned on me that some of the misery was the fault of the mosquitoes, and some of it was my own. By focussing all my waking attention on those bug bites, I drove myself crazy. As an adult, I learned that the less attention I paid to them, the less they bothered me. Now I will sometimes get a bothersome bite, but mostly, I notice them, chalk them up to the fact that this world is not created just for my comfort, and go about my business.

The same can be true of hurts from other people. We can choose to keep careful track of them and to catalog every twinge. Some of us monitor every slight like I did those bug bites, focussing attention on them, picking at them, scratching at them, and complaining to the world about our catalog of grudges and woe.

The good news is that unlike the mosquitoes, there’s a cure. The cure is the month of Elul, the month for apologies and mending broken relationships. When someone comes to me and says, “I’m sorry I never thanked you for that favor” I have the choice to accept the apology. If there is something I need to make things right, I can ask for it. I don’t have to trust that person again, if they are not trustworthy, but I can still be healed of that bothersome little wound.

I can also choose to cherish the anger. I can refuse an apology, and say that nothing will ever make it right. And that may even be true: some hurts go very deep. But do I want to carry it forever? Do I really want to keep scratching at it? Or do I want to make room for some healing, not for the person who offended, but for myself?


jonathan lace

theologian | musician | developer

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