The Clenched Fist or Guiding Hand of Self Judgment

by Rabbi Jill Maderer  (Yom Kippur sermon delivered 9/28/09)

Picture an old, bearded rabbi, sitting at the entrance to a Jewish cemetery on Long Island.  In Tony Kushner’s play, Angels in America, Louis, a young man struggling with his soul and his identity, approaches the rabbi and shares, “I’m afraid of the crimes I may commit.”  Rabbi Isador Chemelwitz replies: “Please mister.  I’m a sick old rabbi facing a long drive home to the Bronx.  You want to confess, better you should find a priest.”  Louis insists, “But I’m not a Catholic, I’m a Jew.”  Rabbi Chemelwitz concludes, “Worse luck for you, bubbalah.  Catholics believe in forgiveness.  Jews believe in guilt.”Of course, Jews do believe in forgiveness.  But what role does guilt play in our lives?

Holocaust scholar and granddaughter of a survivor, Rachel Kadish, explores the concept of guilt in her essay “Guilt Judo.”  After a deep exploration of the Holocaust and its aftermath, Rachel Kadish concludes: “American culture presumes guilt is something manipulative, something to be washed away with a good jet of therapy.  Guilt, though, is nothing more than a cue that we have a choice to make: Do something to repair the situation, or accept it and move on.  Guilt is a powerful, important road sign.  The trick is to remember that it’s only a road sign and not the destination.”

Today, we follow the road sign, pointing us towards the destination of repentance. Anticipating tonight’s final shofar blast, this morning we read: “The great Shofar is sounded, the still small voice is heard; the angels, gripped by fear and trembling, declare in awe: This is the Day of Judgment.”

With the process of repentance, Yom Kippur challenges us to judge our actions, so that in this new year, we might become better, greener, kinder, healthier, more responsible for our lives.  Not only do we identify specific transgressions that require repentance, each of us steps back to look at our life as a whole.  What are my habits?  Who am I in this world and who do I want to become?   

We devote ourselves to Heshbon hanefesh, meaning: the accounting of the soul.  Nefesh means soul, and heshbon means account—the same word is used in modern Hebrew when you pay the bill at a restaurant.  Today is our spiritual version of April 15.   Yom Kippur is our soul’s accounting deadline: our time to judge where we stand and what direction we need to take.  Gripped by fear, trembling and awe, today we come before God to account for our souls.

Heshbon hanefesh is a deep and sometimes dark journey of honest self-judgment.  Facing ourselves in a serious way should be uncomfortable; sometimes it is intimidating.  We know we won’t always like what we’ll see.  The process should be hard, and even dark.  But when the spiritual search is so harsh that we become trapped in the darkness, when the guilt is so excessive that it scares us away, we become vulnerable to Heshbon hanefesh paralysis.

Heshbon hanefesh paralysis comes from the overly critical self-judgment that expects perfection and produces anxiety.  Aspirations of perfection make the process too painful and can freeze us up, preventing us from constructive self-judgment and growth.  

So what is the difference between a cruel dose and a healthy dose of self-judgment?  One functions as a clenched fist*, while the other offers a guiding helping hand.

Cruel self-judgment functions as a clenched fist, defeating you with such overwhelming guilt, that your weaknesses and mistakes become the totality of who you are.  There is no compassion for your efforts and little hope to develop a strategy to do better next time.  Overly-critical self-judgment promotes such a depressing process that it stands against our tradition’s messages of hope and action, of repentance. 

What is your perspective on the everyday challenge of creating balance in your life, as you try to: achieve in the workplace, contribute as a volunteer, strive for physical fitness, care for friends and family, or just keep your house clean?  While some of us can maintain some perspective on the imperfect tension in this balance, others of us can feel defeated by competing interests and unrealistic standards.    

Consider the modern day parent attempting to juggle career and family.  Historians who study parenting trends have observed that in the 1950’s, most parents were trained by their own mothers.  By the 1970’s, new parents had moved away from their hometowns and from their mothers’ wise coaching; thus, the rise of parenting books.  Often, such books establish an ideal that is beyond reach.  So what is this latest generation’s contribution to the trends?  Confessional, guilt-inspired memoirs such as “Daddy Needs a Drink” or “Bad Mother.”

Why does everyone feel so guilty?  Are those parenting handbooks the only thing to blame?  I doubt it.  I suspect that harsh self-judgment begins with our sense of competition and inferiority.  Not only do we read about the ideal family life in the handbook, we delude ourselves into thinking that our neighbor actually leads that life. 

Picture the mother who drives home from work and as usual, gets caught in traffic.  Stuck on the Schuylkill Expressway, chastising herself and filling with tension about being late once again, she feels as if she is the only parent on the block, failing to make it home for dinner.  She doesn’t realize, she’s in good company on the Schuylkill.  Others on the road are feeling guilty as well.  The man in the next car over, feels terrible as he tries to get to his mother’s nursing home in time for dinner, and fears that he visits his aging mother less frequently than does any other son in the world.  When he finally arrives to visit his mother, he is too tense to engage in a meaningful visit.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the goal to join the family for more dinners, or to better care for an aging parent.  The problem is when the self-improvement is motivated by the hope to out-perform the neighbor, or most often, to out-perform our fantasy of the ideal. 

Everyone has guilty moments—limited guilt helps to inform our conscience.  But, our goal is not to drown in guilt, or to obsess about the person we wish we were.  Certainly, we should re-evaluate priorities and make change for the better.  But the core of who we are remains, and is not defined by our neighbors’ strengths, or by our own shortcomings.

Perhaps, the sage Rabbi Zusya struggled with harsh moments of self judgment and one-upmanship, and came to understand a better path when he taught his famous message:  “When I reach the next world,” Rabbi Zusya explained, “God will not ask me, ‘Why were you not the greatest prophet in the world?  Why were you not Moses?’ Instead, God will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?” 

Rabbi Zusya has come to understand that life is not a competition.  God’s only judgment of him will be: Why were you not Zusya—Why did you not strive toward your potential, pursue your unique, God-given gifts, to the fullest?  Zusya should inspire each of us to say:  “God does not expect me to be Moses, or to be perfect, or to be anything I am not.”  In today’s accounting of the soul, Zusya inspires each of us to rediscover: “What is my own potential, my own purpose, my own path.”  Digging deep into our souls, this is the time for each of us to say: I am ready to judge the habits I want to break, and to determine the unique gifts I can offer.” 

With Zusya’s teaching we can develop an inner judge that begins to unclench the fist and to offer a guiding helping hand.

Healthy self-judgment offers a guiding hand, pushing you towards a direction for personal growth.  There is compassion for your efforts and hope to develop a strategy to do better next time.  Healthy self-judgment promotes a constructive process and stands with our tradition’s messages of hope and action, of repentance.

How can you ensure that, when you descend into a dark place of judgment, you will be able to rise up from it?  One way to rise up from our darkest places, is to reach out to others. 

A story: This guy’s walking down the street when he falls into a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A man passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey, you, can you help me out?” The man writes down some instructions about how to scale a wall, throws it down into the hole and moves on.  A second man comes along, and the guy shouts up, “I’m down in this hole. Can you help me out?” The second man writes a prayer, throws it down into the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey, Joe, it’s me. Can you help me out” And the friend jumps into the hole. Our guy says, “Are you nuts? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before – and I know the way out.”**

The torment of perfectionism, is often a road sign, to reach out to others for support.  Recall the scene on the Schuylkill, where the working parent and the adult son of the aging parent, and dozens others like them, wallow in their inferiority.  Perhaps friends, support groups, community and even online connections might help to balance their perspective. 

A website called Working Moms Against Guilt describes its purpose on the homepage.  Quote: “We’re moms. We work all day, bring home the bacon, and fry it up in a pan. Oh, and while we’re at it, we’re raising young children, along with our spouses and partners. As any working mom knows, we often battle the big “G.”  Join us in our ongoing struggle to resist the guilt and embrace the journey.”   End quote.  The Working Moms Against Guilt website creates a virtual community where people sharing similar struggles can offer guidance to one another. 

Similarly, groups for adults caring for elderly parents can offer resources and support.  This is the kind of Connection Group that we could offer here at Rodeph Shalom.  And for all of us in Jewish life, now approaching God and our inner-judge, the communal Yom Kippur services and confessions serve as our group experience. 

While one way to rise up from our darkest places, is to reach out to others, another way involves a more private approach.  Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav offers a spiritual path intended both to guide us towards repentance, and, to help protect us from descending into the unkind self-judgment that promotes inaction. 

Rabbi Nachman was an 18th century mystical thinker, who sought to bring passion into Jewish prayer and practice.  But Rabbi Nachman’s personal spiritual quest was burdened with torment.  Nachman would get sucked into the uncompassionate belief, that the harsher he was on himself, and the guiltier he felt, the better he would become.  He longed to experience a productive approach to self-judgment that would lead to serious self-improvement.  His struggle with guilt and his hope to rise up from it, inspired this teaching.  Rabbi Nachman writes:

“You must have done some good for someone, sometime.   Now go look for it!  But you find it and discover that it too is full of holes.   “Even the good things I did,” you say, “Were all for the wrong reasons!”  Then keep digging.  Because somewhere inside that now tarnished-looking mitzvah, there was indeed a little bit of good.   That’s all you need to find: just the smallest bit: a dot of goodness.   Judging yourself that way, you show yourself that that is who you are.   You can change your whole life this way and bring yourself to Tshuvah.  It’s that first little dot of goodness.  That’s the hardest to find.***

How do we search for the parts of ourselves that require serious scrutiny and change?  When we encounter our failings, we do so with a hope, that is rooted in the faith, that goodness exists within each of us.  Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav teaches us to descend into Heshbon henefesh with a conviction that we can find at least a dot of goodness.  The sacred process of self- judgment is not meant to keep us in a dark, unforgiving place.  It is not meant to be cruel or hopeless—only honest.  In Rabbi Nachman’s vision for Heshbon hanefesh, we begin the ascent from the journey, by focusing on the good in us.  There is no clenched fist, only a guiding, helping hand.

“The great Shofar is sounded, the still small voice is heard; the angels, gripped by fear and trembling, declare in awe: This is the Day of Judgment.”

Yom Kippur challenges us to judge our actions, not with a clenched fist, but with a guiding hand.  Each of us looks at our life as a whole.  What are my habits?  Who am I in this world and who do I want to become?  

Guilt is nothing more than a cue that we have a choice to make.  Today, may our choice be to search our souls and to emerge stronger than we were yesterday.  May we better understand our potential, our purpose, our unique, God-given gifts.  As we devote ourselves to Heshbon hanefesh, may we judge our past, and discover how, tomorrow, we can bring more goodness into the world. 

Source of Judgment and Source of Hope:                                                                                         Gripped by fear, trembling and awe, we come before you to account for our souls.   Amen.

 Notes:                                                                                                                                                            *Reflects consultation with Dr. Dan Gottleib.      **Adapted from dialogue on The West Wing, NBC.     ***Rabbi Nachman translated by Rabbi Arthur Green