By Yael Splansky

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” (Deuteronomy 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…” But guilt is a powerful tool for honing an individual soul, for shaping a whole society. Guilt is one of the most useful tools we carry during this season, when we take cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, and make our way to true repentance.  

For example, every year at the High Holy Day services I look out across the faces of the congregation. I think, “I could have done more for her…I should have done more for him…Did I do right by that family when they were in their hour of need?” I admit the guilt weighs heavily on me. Such guilt must be the origin of the Hin’ni prayer, found in Gates of Repentance (pp. 18–19). Before the service begins, the rabbi stands before the open ark and silently cries out, “Hin’ni he-ani mima-as! (Behold me, of little merit, …) Who is fit for such a task? Dear God, let my congregation not falter on my account, nor I on theirs.” In a rare moment the rabbi stands apart from the congregation. It is a flashback to a time when on Yom Kippur, the Kohein Gadolwould enter the Holy of Holies to seek forgiveness on behalf of the people. But rabbis are not priests. There is no Holy of Holies. And these days are not those days.

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.1 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” (slightly adapted from Rabbi Harold Kushner, How Good Do We Have to Be? [New York: Little, Brown & Company, 1996), p. 65).

I admit I envy the ancient Israelite who had a physical mechanism to relieve herself of guilt. We have a much harder road to walk today. 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.

Bachya ben Joseph ibn Paquda follows an eleventh century model of Muslim mysticism when he guides his reader through ten gates, ten ascending stages of one’s inner-life, reaching towards spiritual perfection, if not union with the Divine. It is a journey of sin and suffering, consequence and commitment. The seventh gate is t’shuvah. The first step through that gate is something like guilt. He writes: “First, you must be fully aware of how awful was your deed. If that is not clear or if there is any doubt about it, there can be neither regret nor the seeking of forgiveness, and therefore teshuvah is not possible. One must be able to say as the Psalmist said, ‘For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,’ ” (Duties of the Heart, Chovos ha-Levavos, p. 615).2
“My sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:5). Such statements give organized religion a bad rap. Words like “guilt” and “sin” clash against the moral relativism of today’s secular culture. 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 antidote, 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” (Deuteronomy 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, 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: “What must they think of me? How can I look them in the eye? I want so much to make them proud.” It’s cold and lonely outside, 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.

  1. Translation for chatat is “purgation” and for asham is “reparation” in W. Gunther Plaut,The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition [New York: URJ Press, 2005] pp. 666, 670).
  2. For Bachya ben Joseph ibn Paquda’s guide to sincere and effective repentance, seeDuties of the Heart, Chovos ha-Levavos, translation from the Arabic into Hebrew by Rabbi Yehuda ibn Tibbon, translation into English by Daniel Haberman [Jerusalem/New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1999], pp. 604–663).

Rabbi Yael Splansky is an associate rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. She is the editor of Siddur Pirchei Kodesh and is a fourth-generation Reform rabbi.