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Jewish World Review
Sept. 18, 2007
/ 6 Tishrei 5768
Are the High Holy Days About Guilt?
Dr. Debby Schwarz Hirschhorn
People manipulate, the Divine does not!
I can remember sitting in shul as a child on during the High Holy Days feeling glum. Why all this concentration on sins anyway? Why rub it in? We're human after all. Of course we're going to sin; so what? I thought it was kind of mean-spirited to make people spend not one but two holidays thinking about our wrongdoings. It just seemed like I, personally, committed a lot of sins that I couldn't somehow escape from. I never looked forward to Yom Kippur in those days. It was not a time for reflection, for cleansing, for new beginnings, for reconnecting with myself like it is now. It was a time for piling on the guilt. Luckily, Succos came shortly afterwards or I could have stayed in a funk for a while.
I was reminded of those days recently when a man told me of his intimate relationship with guilt. His mother introduced the concept and made sure he learned it well. (By the way, he's not Jewish. Or Catholic, either. So much for those myths.) This was a grown man with adult children whose mother would ask him why he never visited her any more when he was there visiting. She also wanted to know why his son, who had traveled to that city, would only visit her on the last day of his trip. (Answer: because if he came to her first, she would play on his guilt for leaving her "so quickly" in order to visit with his friends.) Wanting something for himself other than what Mother wanted was forbidden. Further, thinking something for himself was forbidden too. The father couldn't win, the son couldn't win, and neither could any of the other children, grandchildren, daughters-in-law, or sons-in-law. She took every conversation as an opportunity to generate misery.
It happened that years ago, for no apparent reason, this mother turned on one of her daughters-in-law: She accused her of something she did not do and of intending something she did not intend. When her daughter-in-law protested in front of her husband, the mother-in-law denied the whole conversation. And what did her son do? Did he protest? Did he come to his wife's defense? Did he tell his wife his mother was awful? What did he do?
The answer is: nothing. He did nothing at all because he was immobilized by guilt. As I said, his mother taught him well. He panicked at the thought of how wrong it would be to criticize his mother. Within his own mind, he could not bring himself to condemn her. Now, I ask you: How far do we have to take the 5th Commandment? I'll go one more: Does using guilt to manipulate someone even fall under the privileges of parenthood? And last: Is this what our holidays, starting with the month of Elul are all about? Is G-d that nasty mother trying to control us through guilt?
When he told me his story and asked me what to do, my head jumped to a moment, several years ago, when a woman, crying, told me that she had recently extricated herself from a long-term incestuous relationship with her father and she felt guilty. Such is the power of guilt. It really works, but that doesn't make it right.
With this latter illustration making, I hope, eminently clear that using guilt to manipulate is wrong and that, no, the privilege of being honored does not give parents license to abuse their children, whether young or adult, the position of G-d vis-ŗ-vis His creations
comes into sharp focus: G-d could not possibly be an abusive parent.
G-d, after all, does not need to manipulate us. We should feel guilty if we did something wrong and that guilt should wake us up to do t'shuva. T'shuva is the recognition of wrongdoing and the strong desire never to repeat that mistake. It is also the resolve to take steps to put that desire into practice, combined with the appropriate apologies. If that is done properly, the guilt serves no further purpose and should then dissipate.
Beware any lingering guilt! If you notice some in your heart, then maybe someone has been manipulating you. People will do such things; G-d does not. Allow your guilt, if you feel any, to be your alarm clock to wake up and take action, enjoying the opportunity the Days of Awe gives to right some wrongs. After that, rejoice in the New Year guilt-free.
May you all have a Happy and Healthy New Year.
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JWR contributor Dr. Debby Schwarz Hirschhorn is an Orthodox Marriage & Family Therapist. To comment, please click here. To visit her website, please click here.
04/14/03: Confessions of a
04/16/03: Kindliness and Blood: A Passover Thought
03/25/03: Arguing: It's a Jewish thing
© 2007, Dr. Debby Schwarz Hirschhorn