KI TAVO 5778
How many of you had mothers who made you feel guilty? Yep, that’s just about everyone—especially Jewish mothers. Jewish guilt is for many an integral component—if not the basis and foundation—of Judaism. After all, how many Jewish anecdotes and jokes orbit around guilt? For example: A son dutifully calls his Jewish mother and asks how she’s feeling. “I don’t feel so well,” she answers, “I’m very weak.”
The son says, “Why are you so weak?”
She says, “Because I haven’t eaten in 5 days.”
The man is aghast. “Why not?”
She sighs. “I didn’t want to answer the phone with my mouth full when you called.”
How about this one: A Jewish mother gives her daughter 2 warm sweaters as a going away present when she leaves for college. When the daughter returns home for her winter break, she decides to wear one of them to demonstrate her appreciation of her mother’s gift. When the daughter walks in the door, the mother takes one look at the sweater and demands: “What’s the matter, the other one you didn’t like?”
And finally: A Jewish mother on jury duty was sent home. She insisted SHE was guilty!
Well, today let me show you that guilt is not very Jewish. It actually undermines the basis of our relationship with Gd. And the message couldn’t come at a better time with Rosh Hashanah just around the corner and with today’s Torah reading delineating the 98 “curses” that will befall us if we don’t follow Gd’s Torah. Who wouldn’t associate the High Holidays with fear and guilt? Isn’t Rosh Hashanah Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment? Don’t we confess our sins many times on Yom Kippur, delineating them and beating our chests in contrition? Aren’t the High Holidays all about feeling guilt? The short answer is—surprise, surprise—no.
I’m not sure when and where many of the prevailing myths have crept into Judaism—like the idea of Jewish guilt—but I can assure you that they’re distortions nonetheless. How do I know this? Because we have a Torah which gives us the ability to distinguish between urban legend and fact. Think about it. Why would Gd create us all with flaws and weaknesses, and then punish us for our shortcomings? Why would He want us to be trembling in fear and shuddering with guilt over our transgressions? Clearly, there is more here than meets the eye.
Let me read you a couple of stories about the Baal Shem Tov—founder of Chassidut—that illustrates the point: The Baal Shem Tov once visited a town in where the people complained that their chazzan behaved strangely. It seems that on Yom Kippur, he would chant the Al Cheyt confession of sins with a happy melody, rather than like the funeral dirge melody we’re used to. [Sing V’al kulam…] When questioned by the Baal Shem Tov, he explained: “Rebbe, a king has many servants who serve him. Some of them prepare the royal meals, some serve the food, others do other tasks...Each rejoices that he has the privilege to serve and to be so close to the king.
“Now the palace also has a janitor, charged with the duty of removing the rubbish and filth from the palace…Do you think that he should be depressed because he’s looking at dirt all day? No! He should be happy, because he’s also serving the king...
“Now, when a Jew sins, he dirties his soul. But when he confesses his sins, it is not the sins, the guilt, the darkness and the negativity that he should be focused on, but on the holiness and beauty of his soul that is emerging. After all, he’s removing the layers of dirt that are eclipsing his soul, and allowing his inner light to shine. Is that not a reason to rejoice with happy melodies when confessing our sins?”
This is the true perspective on “sin,” “curse,” “guilt,” “confession,” “judgment” and all the other negative and fear-driven words we project and mistakenly associate with Gd and the Torah especially during the High Holidays. The real story is this: Each of us is created in Gd’s Image. We may wander away from that Image, but it’s always there even though it may be concealed by layers of shmutz, the stains on our souls that our sins put there, the soil of sin. The High Holy Days are about removing the layers of shmutz and reconnecting to our core.
Part of this process is feeling remorse and regret, but not as an end in itself—only as a step and a means to correct our ways and allow our divine souls to manifest. Too often, we give in to our human weak instincts…or others impose their feelings upon us—and poof—we feel guilt. The end result is that we get stuck in feeling the guilt—which does nothing to help us grow. It only bring us down and depresses us. And, according to the Tanya, depression and guilt are actually “sins” because they demoralize us. Sadness and remorse that motivate us to grow are healthy, but not when they become a force that breaks our spirits.
The formula is simple: Any feeling that demoralizes us is unhealthy and unholy. Any feeling that motivates us is healthy and holy.
My last Baal Shem Tov story: The Baal Shem tov once sent his students to observe a local innkeeper, in order to learn how to prepare for Rosh Hashanah. The students dutifully checked into the inn on Friday before Shabbat Selichot. Over that Shabbat they witnessed nothing remarkable. After Shabbat, when it came to midnight and they all went to the local shul to recite Selichot, they kept their eyes open to see what they could learn from the simple innkeeper. Again, nothing special.
Afterwards they all went to sleep, only to be awakened several hours later by someone praying loudly. They tip-toed out of their rooms to find the innkeeper fervently reciting psalms. When he finished, he opened up a cabinet and removed 2 big ledgers. From one ledger he proceeded to read all his sins of the past year. He confessed that on this and this day he was insensitive to his wife, that on another day he didn’t fulfill all his obligations to his community, that he didn’t study enough Torah, and so forth.
Then he opened the 2nd ledger, saying to Gd: “Those in the 1st ledger were my failings. Now in this 2nd ledger, here’s what You didn’t do…I asked for a better living wage, and You didn’t give it to me. My wife fell ill. My children need shoes…”
In the end, he concluded, “Look! I didn’t live up to my obligations, and You didn’t live up to Yours. So let’s call it even. I’ll close my book. You close Your book, and we’ll start a new year again with a clean slate.”
While that might seem irreverent, what the Baal Shem Tov wanted to teach his students is that the relationship between us and Gd is a partnership. When Gd created us in His image, He invested a divine spark of His in us. There’s a partnership between us and Gd to make the world a better place. It is as if He founded a business and said to us, “I’m the Investor, but you stand behind the counter.” In other words as I’m fond of saying, “We are Gd’s hands in this world.”
However, partners are accountable to each other. And this season from now through the holidays is audit time. Gd checks the books to see how well we took care of His investment in us. If we think of it this way, we won’t get mired down in a guilt that doesn’t produce anything constructive. Instead, we’ll become motivated to do better in the New Year.
So the task before us as we approach Rosh Hashanah is not to get mired down in guilt and self-denigration, but to feel a sense of healthy remorse that we have not lived up to our soul’s potential. The Tur writes: The custom of the world is that when you stand in judgment, you don’t know what verdict the judge will give you. But the Jewish people dress in white and they eat and drink and celebrate on Rosh Hashanah because they know that Gd will rescue them, and find them innocent and destroy any negative decree.
My friends, our mistakes ought to become springboards for growth and change, realizing that as Gd’s partners here on earth, we may have not yet completely fulfilled our job. We didn’t rise to the potential that Gd invested in us. But this need not be the end of the world as long as we sincerely commit to do better this coming year. So we will enter Rosh Hashanah—the Day of Judgment—not demoralized and weighed down by guilt and dread, but with the confidence that we will prevail and succeed in making the world a somewhat better place because Gd will bless us with another year. Amen!