Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu – Whenever I hear this list I feel overwhelmed. I ask myself: could somebody have committed all these deeds in one year? Our sages struggled with the comprehensiveness of this prayer as well. Finally, they concluded that a single individual is unlikely to have committed them all. We say Ashamnu together to declare that, as a community, we might be guilty of all these wrongful acts.
Still, the list from Ashamnu has a profound impact on those among us who struggle with the sense of inadequacy and self-loathing. For many of us, this prayer is not a haunting call to repent. Instead, it is a musical rendition of a list of failing and faults that we recite over and over every day, like a mantra.
This year, when I listened to Unetane Tokef, I thought of all those who struggle with anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. How do they feel listening to a prayer that promises them a long list of deaths lest they repent?
I also asked myself: isn't a terrible affliction missing from this list? What about depression and other types of mental health problems? What about real conditions that take away the energy and sometimes even the will to live?
Unlike the plague that is mentioned in Unetane Tokef, depression and other mental health challenges did not make it to the traditional machzor, we needed to wait for Leonard Cohen to make them a part of our religious vocabulary. However, some factors which contribute to psychological challenges have been included in our liturgy for ages. For instance, during Yom Kippur we say Vidui – a Confession, which traditionally contained the following words:
Before I was formed I was worthless, and now that I am formed I am as if not formed: I am dust while I live; how much more so shall I be when dead. Behold, I am before You as a vessel full of shame and disgrace.
It appears that Talmudic sages, authors of Vidui, believed that shame is a feeling that could motivate Jews to repent. In contrast, modern psychologists tend to believe that shame is a destructive emotion. This assessment stems from an understanding that shame arises when one feels that there is something inherently wrong with them, that they are a bad person. As such, it is different from guilt, which is an emotion triggered by negative assessment of a particular behaviour. Modern psychologists argue that, unlike shame, guilt, due to its focus on specific behaviour, can motivate us to act differently when we are confronted with the same situation in the future. Accordingly, it would appear that on High Holidays, we would be much better off if we only felt guilt, but not shame.
Unfortunately, it is often not the case. In our modern day and age many people experience a feeling of inadequacy. In fact, the culture these days seems to be shame-inducing. The advertising industry and social media try to persuade us that there is something wrong with us if we do not drive the flashiest car, do not own the biggest house, do not have the most prestigious career, do not have the greatest figure or even when we do not cook like Julia Child or Gordon Ramsey. We bring this pressure with us to the synagogue on High Holidays. There, we open the Machzor to find out that we are supposed to feel ashamed after all. I personally find it depressing and I wonder: how does it impact someone who either struggles with or is susceptible to mental health issues?
Of course, one could argue that we are supposed to feel ashamed only in the context of our relationship to God. However, the text of machzor does not exist in a vacuum. We read it through the lens of our own experience. And in our daily life the idea of God might often feel vague and distant, while the sense of inadequacy and insufficiency – at work, at school, in our relationships - might feel very real.
What can we do, then, when we enter the High Holidays with a strong resolution to change mixed with the feeling of shame and inadequacy? What if we sit at shul today concerned that we will not be able to become better human beings because we failed to accomplish much smaller personal goals, like being more punctual or decluttering our loft?
I believe that the answer to this question is self-forgiveness, the only type of forgiveness that does not feature prominently in our liturgy. Throughout High Holidays, we plead to the Eternal to forgive us and we are reminded how important it is to ask others for forgiveness. However, we are never explicitly told to forgive ourselves. However, I would argue that there is a text in our Machzor that we could interpret as encouraging us to self-forgiveness. It is found in the Avodah part of the Musaf service. During this service we read about the High Priest sending a scapegoat to Azazel in order to cleanse the people of Israel of their sins. Medieval Torah commentator Nahmanides interpreted this ritual to be a symbolic renouncement of sins that were sent back to what he called the spirit of desolation and ruin. I believe that we can reclaim this tradition. Don't worry, I do not encourage anybody to throw goats off the cliff. Rather, I encourage us to think of the ways in which we could let go of the feeling that we are not good enough or inadequate – in general or in a specific area of our life.
The very thought about it can make some of you feel uncomfortable. After all, today is Yom Kippur, aren't we supposed to feel bad about ourselves? No. I truly believe that Yom Kippur is supposed to make us feel reflective about our failings and motivate us to act differently next year. I am entirely convinced that if we keep feeling ashamed of ourselves, we will feel inadequate in the new year, which can preclude us from the difficult task of behaving differently. Moreover, if we practise self-forgiveness and try to be less hard on ourselves, we might find ourselves less tense and more open to people around us. Self-forgiveness can also help us avoid or at least alleviate the feeling of depression and anxiety. I am not suggesting here that self-forgiveness is a panacea to all mental-health problems. Quite the opposite, I encourage everyone experiencing psychological distress to seek professional help, aided by medication if necessary. However, I do believe that self-forgiveness can help us become happier and better human beings, which is what Yom Kippur is all about.
Psychologist and Reform rabbi Ellen Lewis seems to agree with me, when she writes in Mishkan HaNefesh, our machzor:
Not perfect, but fully human, this is what God asks of us. And, in response, this may be the best we can do: forgive ourselves for our yearning and failings, for being human and not God; and accept the imperfections, satisfactions and challenges of being a person. Only having made that choice can we walk unburdened and open-hearted into the New Year.
The choice that rabbi Lewis encourages us to make is not an option for most of us. This is because self-forgiveness does not happen at a certain point in time, it is a process of healing. For many of us this process of healing takes a lot of time, energy and support. The path to self-forgiveness takes us on a journey of reframing our self-image. On the way, we slowly learn to notice the good in us, to revisit the memories that fill us with pride. It is a counter-intuitive journey for many of us. After all, we are used to walk in the valley of the shadow of death - the valley of deadly self-loathing and the shadow of self-doubt.
Yom Kippur’s main message: choose life - reminds us that the valley of the shadow of death is not the way to go. Instead, we should walk towards life and light.
For those of us who struggle with self-forgiveness, the words of ashamnu bagadnu might not be the right set of directions to find ourselves in the book of life. Luckily, an alternative vidui, composed by Rabbi Avi Weiss, can put us on this trajectory. Rabbi Weiss writes:
We have loved,
we have blessed,
we have grown,
we have spoken positively.
We have raised (others) up,
we have shown compassion,
we have acted enthusiastically,
we have been empathetic,
we have cultivated truth.
We have given good advice,
we have respected,
we have learned,
we have forgiven,
we have comforted,
we have been creative,
we have stirred (inspired).
We have been spiritual activists (took action),
we have been just,
we have longed for Israel.
We have been merciful,
we have given full effort,
we have supported,
we have contributed,
we have repaired.
I wish you all to make the choice to be self-forgiving next year. May we all be sealed into the book of life and forgiveness – Divine and our own. Gmar Chatima Tova!