Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Holy Paradox

They say of the Apte Rebbe, also known as the Ohev Yisrael, that he disdained the idea of fasting. He felt that the medium through which we should serve G-d is joy. And fasting interferes with our ability to be joyous. He is reported to have said "If I could, I would do away with all the fasts in Israel save for two, Tisha B'Av and Yom Kippur.... Tisha B'Av because who wants to eat and Yom Kippur because who needs to eat".

Yom Kippur is nearly here. It is the one day a year where we feel indeed who needs to eat. We are as angels. It does not intimidate us to say the baruch shem, the praise reserved exclusively for the angels out loud. We belong in their company. We wear the kittel, the white clothes of purity. Some even stand all day, as if we like the malachim, have no need to sit.

And yet is it not ironic that the very same we who identify ourselves with the angels spend the very same time, the whole day of Yom Kippur beating our fists against our chests, listing sin after sin, and declaring in the most sobering terms "haray ani lefanecha kichli malay busha uchleema" "behold I am before You (G-d) as a vessel full of shame and disgrace".

We who dress in the clothes of the pure in those very clothes confess the sins of the worst kind. We who have no need to eat repeat over and over how we have been seduced by every desire. We who say the praise reserved for the angels in one breath in another speak of our unworthiness to claim our right to exist at all.

How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction? Are we hopeless sinners or angels? And if one is true how can the other be true and at the same time?

I think to understand Yom Kippur and its core message we need to distinguish between two similar sounding terms, shame and guilt. At first blush the terms seem almost synonymous.
We often use them interchangeably. Yet in reality they are very different. Someone wise once said "Guilt says "I have done bad" . Shame says "I am bad."

When a person feels guilty its a response to his/her actions. S/he feels s/he did something wrong. When a person feels shame s/he feels the problem is not with what s/he did but with who s/he is. For the guilty person there is always hope. S/he can amend his/her behavior, say "I am sorry" and get over it. To the person who feels what s/he did is a reflection of who s/he is there is no hope. If I did bad I can do better. If I am bad no matter what I do who I am remains the same. The problem is not my actions. If I feel shame the problem is me.

Pursuing this a bit further we might ask how does one know if one is essentially a good person who did bad or really a bad person? How do we know if shame or guilt is the appropriate feeling?

The answer is that to the extent one feels badly over what s/he did is the very measure of the level of goodness within him/her. I mean think about it. The person who is truly bad when s/he does something wrong has no sense of guilt or shame. S/he simply goes about his/her evil ways.
Bad people are measured by their lack of a sense of having done wrong. They have no conscience, no remorse, no hesitation to repeat the very same evil again.

Good people always feel remorse. They grieve over things they have done that have hurt others. They lament their selfishness and callous behaviors. They want to change even when that change does not occur. In that remorse is the sign of their intrinsic goodness. Their sense of having done wrong proves that they are indeed good people who did wrong. That they feel the wrongfulness of their actions proves that guilt is an appropriate feeling...but they have no need to feel shame...They are at their core good not bad!

And the deeper that one feels the regret, the more sensitive one is to the subtleties of his/her wrong-doing the more it reveals of the core goodness in that person. The better the person the more s/he is pained by the evil s/he has done.

That is the essence of Yom Kippur. On no other day are we as cognizant of our sins, both to G-d and to man. On no other day are we as full of regret over past actions and their consequences. On Yom Kippur even sins we often minimized during the year we acknowledge and tearfully confess. In those sincere and heartfelt confessions we reveal our essential goodness. The very sadness over our behaviors past paradoxically reveals the essence of the purity of our souls. In the intensity and depth of our remorse we gain a great gift. Even as we say unconditionally we did wrong, we affirm thereby that we are beautiful, good and yes within us inheres the purity of the angels.

Yom Kippur reveals to us who we really are. Our tears prove to us our goodness. Unless we believe that we are good no change is possible. Knowing we consist of the purity of the angels even if compromised by our actions opens the door to teshuva.

May this Yom Kippur bring us the gift of reconciliation with Our Father in Heaven and with all our brothers and sisters. Reconciliation is born in the integrity of our sorrow over our past misdeeds. The deeper the sense of our sorrow the more the hope for renewal.Their can be no real teshuva without a deep charata. For in that sorrow we affirm that we are indeed worthy and good. And out of that goodness we find the resolve to change.

G'mar chatima tova
Shabbat Shalom

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