No Baggage: A Guilt-Free Yom Kippur

September 21, 2009

6 min read


This Yom Kippur, leave the guilt at home.

I looked at the pictures, just like you did, and wondered in total disbelief.


"Is that a car under all that water, or is it a boat?"


"For how long were those people stuck on their own roofs?"

"Didn't they realize that those levees weren't strong enough?"

"That couldn't be the SUPERDOME, could it?"

"For heaven's sake, why didn't they get out while they could?"


Katrina, perhaps the greatest natural disaster ever to occur on American soil, has claimed countless casualties, destroyed the lives of every 'fortunate' survivor, and wreaked havoc with our pristine and invincible national psyche.

And while the corpses were yet damp and the downtown intersections still deluged, the obligatory finger-pointing could not wait. Read the press. Hear the news. Watch the circus. Today it's the Mayor, tomorrow it's Bush. "The engineers were amateurs." "God has spoken." FEMA was totally inept; the Governor should resign. It was a city of depravity; Ariel Sharon is the source of all things evil.

And so it goes. Scapegoats were vilified and proletarians were suddenly promoted to pundits. And all the while, funerals and burials became daily fare as hundreds of thousands wondered when Houston became a suburb of New Orleans.

A storm from hell has ravaged our coastline and permanently crumbled multitudinous lives. And what is our primary and immediate response? Recriminations and blame.

Sure, it's important to know what went wrong in the rescue efforts. We must learn from our mistakes. But couldn't The Fault Show have waited just a bit, so we could mourn and bury and regroup first? I suppose that's what feelings of helplessness can often cause.

Of course, blame is not an unfamiliar concept to the Jews. Two thousand plus years of Crusades, pogroms, holocausts and expulsions can do that to a People.

But blame, for all its damaging implications, also connotes responsibility -- personal, familial, and communal. And Jews, especially during these Days of Awe, embrace this concept of taking responsibility for our actions and our passivity -- even our thoughts and feelings. We take pride as we take stock. Painful as the process is, we almost savor the cleansing feeling that washes over us as the Yom Kippur sunset escorts our final petitions, leading us to ultimate atonement.

Sometimes we transform self-blame into undue shame and humiliation. We punish ourselves in ways that can bruise our sense of self.

Sometimes, however, in our zeal to achieve rectification, we distort this requisite sense of accountability in a damaging way. Self-blame can easily be transformed into undue shame and humiliation. Guilt feelings, the kind necessary to pave the road to self-improvement, often become much more than that. They dominate our spirit. We punish ourselves in ways that can bruise and impair our sense of self. Perfection is mistaken for purification. I don't think that is what Yom Kippur is really about.

The venerable 19th century sage, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, once asked an obvious question and offered a penetrating response. "Why did God choose to position Yom Kippur after Rosh Hashana? Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement; Rosh Hashana celebrates God's dominion over the Universe and the role that we, His Chosen People, play in that cosmos. Wouldn't it be far more logical to enter that glorified state after we have undergone the spiritual refinement of Yom Kippur?

It is actually very much the contrary, explained the wise rabbi. We don't need to be totally purified to attain the exalted status of membership in the Heavenly Corps. We achieve that holy status just by being who we are -- yes, with all of our blemishes and imperfections and weaknesses. It's called being human.

But shouldn't we, at least, try to perfect ourselves wherever possible?

Of course. It is, in fact, precisely that effort that brings us to higher and higher levels of compassion, understanding and holiness. But when perfection becomes our only acceptable goal, and when falling short of that causes unhealthy guilt, crippling self-blame and despondence, we have clearly gone too far.

Life, as we've all been told so many times, is indeed a trip. And when we travel by plane, each one of us undergoes intense scrutiny. And as we meander our way through the strains of airport security, we inch closer and closer to the Big Moment -- when we must come face to face with the dreaded but essential X-Ray machine and Metal Detector. We are asked to place everything we own on the conveyor belt so that each and every item can be carefully examined. We know we are entering a holy place because often times we must even remove our shoes.

Even if that bell does go off, it doesn't mean that you won't get on the plane.

And then, in single file, we march through the machine, hoping -- perhaps praying -- that the dreaded alarm doesn't sound, signaling that we have been selected for even closer examination.

But even if that bell does go off, it doesn't mean that you won't get on the plane. You may just be asked to leave an item behind or to explain why you need to carry something with you. Yes, even with imperfections you can still get a boarding pass.

And so it is on Yom Kippur. We wind our way through the year and finally reach the Big Day, when we must come face to face with the Almighty. Everything we've done is carefully scrutinized and evaluated. We have left our shoes at home.

And then, as we say in our holy prayers, all of mankind passes before God like members of the flock approaching the spiritual metal detector. Like sheep walking in single file before their owner, we pass under His staff and hold our breath, awaiting His decree. We close our eyes and pray that the dreaded alarm remain silent and we are granted passage for another year.

But we needn't be flawless to get that boarding pass -- no one is. We may be asked to leave certain sins or faults behind or to explain why we failed to reach our potential this year. These are important questions -- questions that we should be asking ourselves.

But the God of Mercy understands each and every one of us. He sees through our baggage with perfect x-ray vision. He knows our intentions and he knows our pretensions. He judges our level of sincerity and takes our struggles into full account. And all He really wants is our full effort -- complete, earnest, and heartfelt.

Yes, Yom Kippur is a day of breast-beating, tears, and unparalleled reverence. But all of that is enhanced when we remain in full cognizance of God's unconditional love for His children.

This year, when you finish your last minute packing, leave the dagger at home. Pack a really good prayer book, some very sincere resolutions, and lots of tissues.

And have a nice trip.

May we all arrive safely.


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