Image: An iron gate stands open in an ornate stone doorway. Tama66/Pixabay.
Rabbi Chananya bar Papa asked Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, “What is the meaning of the verse, ‘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.
10 thoughts on “The Jewish Cure for Guilt”
What a great post Rabbi, thank you for your transparency. I too have the same issues you mention, over thinking, self critical, mortified at my blunders. Teshuvah is beautiful, and I find it’s actually more humble. What, Godmdoesnt know we’re human? 🙂
This reminds me of Rabbi Eliezer’s “repent one day before you die” teaching.
We’re on the same page, Ruth, and you are SO right about humility! A good friend reminded me recently that it would be the height of arrogance to think that I could be perfect: what makes me different from any other member of the human race? Mistakes and flaws are human. The “yetser ra” [selfish inclination] is human. A lifelived well is a life lived as well as possible, with a willingness to own and clean up messes. It is in taking responsibility, and doing what we can to make amends that we make our messy lives holy. I continue to enjoy reading your blog, too. Thanks for writing!
Thank you for linking this, this morning. I’ve been struggling in one place about this; perhaps you can help?
The formula that I read about for making a true apology (about teaching little kids to apologize and mean it, of all places) goes like this:
1. Say what you are sorry for. “I’m sorry that I said hurtful things about you/your __________.”
2. Say why you are sorry for it. “It was really inappropriate for me to say those things about you/your _________, and I shouldn’t have done that.”
3. Say what you will do differently next time – and frame it positively, not negatively. “Next time I’ll wait for you to ask my opinion before I give it.”
4. Ask for – but do not expect – forgiveness. “I ask for your forgiveness for what I did.”
But Judaism also requires that we make amends for what we did, if possible. I am unsure how to make amends for hurtful words (which I am guilty of a lot more than I want to be – in fact, it’s the main thing that I find myself realizing I need to apologize for). Any suggestions?
(By the way – when you said “a Catholic childhood and a Jewish adulthood add up to a finely tuned duet of guilt,” I laughed in COMPLETE and TOTAL recognition.)