No Such Thing as Jewish Guilt

Let me make it clear from the outset. There is no such thing as Jewish guilt! Yes, you read correctly. There is no such thing as Jewish guilt. Now, admittedly, I am no mother and what do I know? But as a Rabbi I cannot be clearer. There is no such thing as Jewish guilt.
 
I can almost hear you thinking… Can someone please go and tell my mother? Well, that isn’t going to work. I never said Jewish mothers don’t impose guilt. I merely said that feeling guilty is NOT a Jewish value. Why then do Jews talk so much about guilt? Why is there so much talk about repentance and regret?
 
Did you say regret? Ah, that is a much better word. There is definitely such a thing as Jewish regret. The difference between guilt and regret is guilt is self-based, regret is action based. I regret because I did something bad. I feel guilty because I am bad. But G-d didn’t make bad people. G-d made good people. You are not bad. You are good.  And because you are good, you feel badly about having done something beneath you. Unfitting and unbecoming for a person as good as yourself.
 
You see guilt drags us down. It uses our bad deeds to prove to us how bad we are. Regret lifts us up. It uses our regret to prove to us how good we are. We regret doing it and won’t do it again because we are good and good people don’t do bad things.
 
Make An Appointment
Fair enough. Now that we have turned our entire concept of guilt on its head, let’s talk about regret. How do I deal with regret? I regret having lost my temper. I regret having eaten the extra potato knish. I regret having spent the extra three thousand dollars. What do I do with those feelings?
 
Do what the Torah tells us to do. Make an appointment.
 
When a Jew committed a sin back in the day, it was atoned for with an offering on the altar. Now, offerings could only be brought in the Temple. Does this mean that every time Jews in the diaspora committed a sin, they traveled to Jerusalem? Were they forever traveling?
 
Of course not. They would take careful notes of their sins and keep a running tally. The next time they traveled to Jerusalem and Jews made pilgrimage there times yearly, they took care of all their outstanding offerings. This raises a question. If they committed a sin in January and only received atonement in April, how did they deal with their regret for three and a half months?
 
The answer is quite simple. They put it aside. They made a note, thought carefully about how wrong it is to sin against G-d and then set it aside. They refused to think of it again until it was time to bring their offering. What benefit would they accrue from constant preoccupation with their sin? There is only one result regret can lead to and that is depression.
 
Depression is terrible because it saps our drive and optimism. Even if you enjoy life, you won’t engage, you won’t be good at it if you are depressed. You will be sluggish. You will start feeling down and look to compensate elsewhere. At first, you will allow yourself one small sin because you are doomed anyway and because it will help to distract you. That sin will lead to even greater depression which leads, in turn, to even greater sins. So what constructive gain results from preoccupation with regret?
 
Better to set it aside for when you can deal with it constructively, the day you will bring your offering.
 
Same is true today. Don’t worry too much about the sin you committed. Right now you are busy with other things and your worry will distract you and slow you down. Make an appointment for your regret and deal with it then. Set aside a ten minute period  just before bedtime when you will reflect on the awesome G-d against whom you sinned, beg His forgiveness, resolve to never sin again and move on.
 
That last part, the part about moving on, is critical. Just as you set a start time for your appointment, you set an end time and stick to it. Regret is only useful when it is directed. You need to control your regret, you can’t let it control you. The moment you loosen the reins, your regret will pick up the slack and seek to take over. The net result would be, self-defeating depression. Don’t let that happen.
 
Catharsis
Many argue that the agony of depression is cathartic because the pain feels like penance. The problem is that this form of penance is sinful; it layers your first sin with another. Suppose you got caught cheating on your income taxes and you regret it. Suppose you decide to cleanse yourself by letting all your bills fall into arrears until someone drags you to court. You plan to let them flog you till you are beaten and then you will feel atoned.
 
There is a slight problem. Not paying your bills is called theft and is illegal in this country. It might make you feel good, but it’s counterproductive. It exacerbates your crime with another crime. The same is true of elongated regret. It might feel good to flog yourself over your sin, it might make you feel self-righteous and cleansed, but G-d doesn’t permit depression.
 
You see my friend, happiness is not a right that we are free to accept or reject. You can’t just wake up one morning and say, I’m not entitled to happiness, I’m way too corrupt to enjoy happiness so I will deprive myself until I feel depressed. You could do that if happiness were a right, yours to accept or reject. But Torah doesn’t view happiness as a right. In the Torah, happiness is an obligation.
 
“Serve G-d out of happiness,” says King David. Happiness is not an option that you can opt out of. Happiness is a moral obligation. It is obligatory because it makes you a better Jew; more useful to G-d. If you stopped being happy you would grow depressed and lethargic, eventually letting G-d down. To prevent this the Torah mandates happiness. Since happiness is a Divine mandate, opting out is sinful.
 
It follows that choosing to be unhappy because you committed a sin is as good as choosing to steal because cheating on your taxes. It might feel cathartic, but it follows one sin with another.
 
We must work hard to maintain our happiness. And this is why we must plan an end game to our regret. We can’t allow regret to run on forever because it will sap us. Thus, when you plan your appointment to deal with your regret, do it properly. Make the necessary life changing resolutions, put a plan in place to ensure your success and then move on. Get it over with
Control your regret. Don’t let it control you. When the time comes, wave it goodbye and turn your attention elsewhere. Release the shackles of shame and embrace the freedom of change.


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