Avoiding depression on Yom Kippur

When I look at this year’s list of “issues” and remember last year’s list, the similarity of the two can be depressing.

Men pray next to a plastic pool containing fish as they perform the ‘Tashlich’ ritual in Bnei Brak, in this photo from 2013, ahead of Yom Kippur. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Men pray next to a plastic pool containing fish as they perform the ‘Tashlich’ ritual in Bnei Brak, in this photo from 2013, ahead of Yom Kippur.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s that time again: time for a long, honest look at one’s life. What have I accomplished and what is still undone. Where have I failed and how can I improve. Yom Kippur is coming! On the one hand, I welcome this. “The unexamined life is not worth living” resonates with me. (I wonder if Socrates had Jewish ancestors.) It is healthy to try to put aside the familiar rationalizations and see oneself accurately.
On the other hand, when I look at this year’s list of “issues” and remember last year’s list, the similarity of the two can be depressing.
Am I still stuck on so many of the same problems? And the same goes for five and 10 years ago! It seems like I am not making any progress. Maybe I am hopeless [for these issues at least]; at least part of me is a permanent failure. And that thought is depressing.
It does not have to be that way. We can be realistic about the past, including our longstanding unresolved issues, and yet be inspired on Yom Kippur. Here are two ways to accomplish this: First, King Solomon said: “The righteous fall seven times – and get up”! Failing is natural and expected – even repeated failure. The fact that we are still trying is already a success.
The Mussar greats of the 19th century used to say that you can test whether a fish is alive or dead by throwing it into a flowing stream.
If it goes upstream it is alive; if it goes downstream with the current it is probably dead.
And what if it remains in the same spot in the stream? Then it must be alive – if it were dead it would be floating downstream.
So too for us: if we are still in the fight – if we still care – if we get up from each fall to try again – then we are spiritually alive. That is a cause for celebration, not depression.
Second, a common cause of failure to improve is setting unrealistic expectations.
“How can I solve this problem?” may be the wrong question. Sometimes a better question is: “How can I make progress on this problem – how can I improve?” The Ethics of the Fathers reminds us that it is not our responsibility to finish the work, but that we are obligated to do our best to make progress.
The first step in this process is to divide the problem into manageable stages. It is crucial to realize that every challenge – every mitzvah – can be divided in multiple ways into small enough parts to be addressed with confidence of success. Here are some examples: Let’s say I have a problem with anger. Simply deciding not to get angry is beyond my power – but once a day might be possible. I imagine starting each day ready for the one provocation that I will overcome. Once a day is not hopeless. Another possibility: of all the circumstances in which my anger button is pushed, some will be easier to resist than others.
So I resolve to resist one or two of those specific circumstances.
Let’s say I have a problem with charity – it is hard for me to part with my money even when the cause in genuine. To give the appropriate percentage that halacha demands is beyond me. But to look for one opportunity a week and give something is not beyond me. Or to look for a cause that genuinely moves me – where I already have an impulse to give – and try to push to give to that cause.
Let’s say I have a problem with keeping Shabbat. Total observance every week is beyond me. But once a month may be within my powers. Or some of the Shabbat observance may be possible even if total observance is not. Let’s say I have a problem with keeping kosher. But it may be that I can keep kosher at home. Or I may be able to give up some non-kosher foods.
In each of these cases, and countless others, you might feel the project as a whole is hopeless, but that making step-by-step progress is not. And if we take even one step forward, we will not be depressed about ourselves.
Now some people look at this process with suspicion. They have three concerns. First: How can I sanction behavior that I know is wrong? All of my bursts of anger are wrong as are all of my failures to give charity. How can I allow the majority of those wrong behaviors? Shabbat is once every week. How can we sincerely allow ourselves to keep only one a month? The same with kashrut: it is a package deal. The whole list of forbidden foods is forbidden everywhere. How can it not be hypocrisy to keep kosher only at home, or give up only certain non-kosher foods? The answer to this concern is to keep clearly in mind the difference between what is ultimately right and what can be reasonably expected of me. It is hypocrisy – and intellectual suicide – to sanction partial observance – as if the Torah’s definition of the mitzvah is somehow incorrect. It is not hypocrisy to say that I believe something is right and I am working on improving my performance. Perfection is not demanded to avoid the charge of hypocrisy.
Second concern: Doesn’t God give us the power to do everything the Torah requires of us? Don’t we have the strength to overcome every challenge? Is that not part of free will? The answer to this concern is that it is our free will to use the powers we have. God recognizes our limitations and holds us responsible only to use our powers to the fullest.
Yes, we can overcome every challenge. But not every obstacle is a challenge. Only those obstacles we have to power to overcome are challenges. For the obstacles we cannot overcome, the challenge is to live with ourselves as we continuously face those obstacles.
Third concern: Doesn’t this make it too easy? Will it not encourage minimizing our estimate of our abilities in order to save ourselves the effort? Yes, there is a danger of being too lax.
But there is also the opposite danger of asking too much from ourselves and inviting depression. That in turn can lead to despair of ever changing, and that ends our hope for improvement.
So let us dedicate ourselves this Yom Kippur to celebrating our steadfast resolve to strive to improve, and to starting the step-by-step process of gradually becoming better people.
Let us start to build the new year with hope and inspiration – and let the Yom Kippur depression be a thing of the past.
The author, a rabbi, has lectured at Ohr Somayach and internationally for the last 33 years or so.
He was prior to that a full professor in philosophy at Johns Hopkins University.