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Dangerous Advice Your Rabbi Might Give You Before Rosh Hashanah

Dangerous Advice Your Rabbi Might Give You Before Rosh Hashanah

How to search through your past without falling into it


Proceed With Caution

There’s a lot of bad advice going around this time of year. Dangerous advice. The Internet is full of it. So is your synagogue. Maybe even your favorite rabbi.

Look, they mean well. But they’re often completely unaware of the hazards involved. Which makes their advice an even greater threat to your mental and spiritual health.

“Days of Judgment are upon us,” they tell you. “Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur. It's time to take an account of all you’ve done wrong in the past year and resolve never to return to your wayward deeds.”

Absolutely true. Absolutely crucial. And equally dangerous.

SuchWithout serious precautions, this inventory-taking can be downright toxic. advice works wonders for the spiritually advanced. But for the rest of us, without serious precautions, this inventory-taking can be downright toxic. Here's why:

  1. Dwelling on the moral misdemeanors of your past and the brute instincts from which they emerged is guaranteed to lead to depression. Now get this, and get it straight and clear: There's sin, there's evil, there's hell, and then there's depression. At least hell gets you somewhere.
  2. Contemplating how and why you chose to act out those urges, you will re-experience the thrill and pleasure you drew from them. Which just makes it all the more likely that you'll do more of the same.
  3. Worse yet: You might take this life-review to heart. Then you'll say, “Boy, was I rotten! Boy, was I nasty! I guess I'm just a real rotten, nasty guy and always will be”

That last one is the real killer. Because it defeats your original purpose in engaging in this self-review in the first place. If you're making this review, it's because you already regret your past and want to leave it behind. You want the coming year to be a year of growth and blossoming of all your spiritual potential.

Just by starting that journey, you're forgiven already. He’s a forgiving G‑d. All it takes is a moment of regret to be forgiven.

But you’re looking for more than forgiveness. The point of this review is not the past, not the present, but the future. You need to grow out of your past. You need to change. Inner change.

And here you're sabotaging all of that. Because the key to inner change is to change who you think you are. But if you think you're a louse, you will be a louse.

If you think you're a louse, you will say, “Why would a great, perfect G‑d pay attention to the prayers of a louse like me? Why would He want my mitzvahs? Why would He want anything to do with me?”

“Serve G‑d with joy.”1 It’s not going to work otherwise.2 Yes, there was a time when people could handle a good portion of bitter herbs and still stay joyful. But, as the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory put it,Today, we just don’t have the strength to deal with bitterness. today, we just don’t have the strength to deal with bitterness. We need inspiration, motivation and celebration. Bitterness still has its place, but only once you’ve fully revved up the engine of joy.3

In short, your yearly inventory is likely to be not only counterproductive, but a plan for disaster. Unless…

Daniel Burka on Unsplash
Daniel Burka on Unsplash

Search and Rescue

Unless you know what you are looking for. And what you are looking for is definitely not your sins. You’ll find those—like you’ll find clots of hairy muck while clearing clogged pipes. But they’re not the object of your search. You’ll only find those so you can chuck them out—immediately.

You are looking for yourself. Your true self. And you can only find that by looking back there, taking a road trip though all the inner places where your true self was lost.

InCall it a cognitive reframing of your past self, so that you can move forward. the lingo of psychology, you’re doing a cognitive reframing of your past self, so that you can move forward.

“And you will search for G‑d, your G‑d, from there, and you will find Him, because you will seek Him with all your heart and all your soul.”4

That's the first mention of teshuvah in the Torah. Teshuvah is too often translated as repentance. That's wrong. Repentance means you're bad and now you've resolved to be good. Teshuvah means returning. Returning to the true, pure self that never changes. Because it is a breath of G‑d who does not change.

Search back there, through the mud and the murk of your past. Search past the deeds and the words. Those are but symptoms. You don’t heal by treating symptoms.

Search back there, through the blood-boiled chambers of your heart, past the callous egotism that allowed those things, past the fool who allowed himself to believe he was G‑d and therefore could do whatever he pleased and trample over whoever got in the way, past the hard rock walls of a heart that just didn’t care.

Search there with all the faith of your heart and soul, saying, “Deep inside here, I know I will find a pure soul. I know that when I did those things, when I acted the way I did, that pure soul was screaming bloody murder. I heard its voice, but I didn't listen. Instead, I heard the voice of a beast, and I let myself believe that was me.”

“But I am not a beast. I am not a louse. I am an innocent child. I am a spark of the divine. And I will find that pure soul there within that darkness and I will rescue it from there.”

Chris B on Unsplash
Chris B on Unsplash

Faith In Yourself

Only once you have faith in yourself can you see yourself objectively. You can admit to your faults, because they are not you.

Only once you have faith in who you really are can you understand why these things don't suit you. Like poor choices from a wild shopping spree, shoes that hurt your feet, pants that never fit, gaudy jewelry and cheap accessories, they just have to be chucked so you can move on in life.

Searching for yourself is a journey that takes far more faith than any pilgrimage. Just as you have faith in a G‑d you cannot see, so you must have faith in your own soul whose voice you cannot hear.

Because G‑d has faith in that soul. G‑d has faith in you. Faith you cannot fathom.

David, sweet singer of Israel, sang to G‑d: “On Your behalf, my heart says to me, ‘Seek my innermost!’ G‑d, I seek Your innermost.”5 For an entire month before Rosh Hashanah and until Hoshana Rabbah, we repeat those words twice a day in our prayers.

BecauseAt this time of year, the innermost of your heart is calling, saying, “Check me out. I am who you really are.” that's what your heart is doing during those days. It's beckoning to you, “Check me out. Check me out deeply. Beneath all the schmutz, I am dark but beautiful. I am who you really are, and can truly be.”

Search there, rescue yourself from there, and you will be that.

And you will be surprised. Because there you will find that G‑d Himself was always breathing within you.

Maamar Ani L’Dodi 5729.

Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Annie Spratt on Unsplash
See Tanya, Chapter 26.
Maamar Margala B’fuma D’Rava 5746. See also Hitvaduyot 5719, page 235. Maamar Ani L’Dodi 5729. Sefer HaSichot 5748, Matot-Massei. Sefer HaSichot 5750, page 93.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Shalom Babylon August 31, 2017

Bien! Mas vale tarde que nunca! Reply

Hugh Texas September 23, 2017

Thank you for the words of encouragement. Reply

Helen Australia September 14, 2017

Very well expressed and so very true! I have walked that road myself and I am still on the path. And I am sooooo grateful for my clarity of thoughts and the love and joys of my life. It's a long journey with ups and downs. I stumble at times but G-d is always behind me guiding me. His presence is strongly felt within my core and my soul.
Shana Tova to all. Reply

Anonymous via September 10, 2017

I have been dreading the upcoming holidays as I do not need one more day of self-disparagement. Perhaps your words will inspire me to approach it otherwise. I need lifting up, not putting down. Sometimes in the past on Yom Kippur I stay away from Temple and just have a day of At-One-Ment. I need healing, not more self-abuse. Thank you for your kind words. Reply

Binyamin Sacramento September 10, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

I stay home alone every Yom Kippur; I've been doing this for some fifteen years, ever since leaving my yeshivishe community.

We do what we need to do to heal.

Kol tuv,
Ben Reply

Anonymous berlin September 8, 2017

here, and you will find Him, because(??) you will seek Him with all your heart and all your soul.”Deuteronomy 4:29.
I say “And you will search for god, your(!!) god, from there, and you will find Him, IF you will seek Him with all your heart and all your soul.”Deuteronomy 4:29.
It is up to you if you seek or not.It should be obvious that you don´t seek truthfully when you pray: "‘Seek my innermost!’ G-d, I seek Your innermost.”5 For an entire month before Rosh Hashanah and until Hoshana Rabbah, we repeat those words twice a day in our prayers",pay a little money to rabbis and go on slitting jewish children to pieces.So you must clearly find out your mistakes,you must exactly define what is good and evil,you must truthfully correct your mistakes and you must create a better you must correct the world.You can only find god when you correct the world(Num14,45).So why do you refuse to discuss what is good and evil? Because you want to stay a slave of Satan? Because you want to earn more mo Reply

Cathy Dyer Raleigh September 7, 2017

You outdid yourself this time. Excellent! Reply

Sorrell September 7, 2017

Mental Health and High Holiday Moral Advice I want to know, what does the process of examining one's past deeds undertake for someone struggling with mental illness such as post traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, narcissistic sociopathy disorder, schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, psychopathic disorders, etc, and cannot distinguish intentional misdeeds from those out of their control by which were driven through the illness itself?? I was thinking along those lines in the beginning, in regards to advice being dangerous. Those with mental health issues cannot take the advice in the same ways, or even literally like those who do not have mental illnesses. I was thinking the hidden dangers could be actually life threatening, in the case of suicide or sudden onset of a psychotic episode or worse. How does one approach this? Reply

Binyamin Sacramento September 10, 2017
in response to Sorrell :

"How does one approach this?" Very gently.

After a life-threatening trauma, I faced serious depression every Yom Kippur. I was cognizant that I needed to stay away from the community in order to heal, and yet I felt guilty for not participating in the traditional Yom Kippur services.

I was careful to surround myself with positive people and positive written material before, during, and after Yom Kippur. I did not read mussar, Tanya, or anything that would lead me to trounce myself emotionally or spiritually.

On Yom Kippur itself, rather than praying the traditional prayers, I rested at home and, as I felt up to it, 'talked to G-d' about what was happening in my life. My sense was, He understood fully what I was facing, and he was on my side.

If at any point I felt despondent, let alone endangered by my thoughts and emotions, I allowed myself to seek out friends on the Internet or even watch a movie.

We do what we must to live and perform mitzvot yet another day. Reply

Sorrell September 13, 2017
in response to Binyamin:

Thank you for your response, Binyamin. I have had quite the time of it for over 20 years, and have learned to put down my faith but keep it cultural. I still yearn from time to time, but sense that for me (I do not speak for others) it is like a loaded gun pointed at my own head. I am only celebrating Rosh Hashana at home, because it means something special to my young children, and we just moved three thousand miles away from our previous home and need what bit of cultural traditions we still have left. Reply

Binyamin Sacramento September 14, 2017
in response to Sorrell:

I understand. It has been fourteen years for me.

There is something else I should mention. Most people - dare I say 'normal' people - don't think much about 'sin' and such on a day-to-day basis, which is why Yom Kippur is so very important. It is the one day of the year when people must face themselves.

On the other hand, those of us who suffer from serious depression tend to wallow in our shortcomings. We face ourselves daily and are perilously aware of our shortcomings. For this reason, Yom Kippur can hit us like a brick, and so we must be careful.

I have been told that people like me, people who suffer from severe depression, should not engage in studying mussar or anything that would encourage such wallowing. We don't need to be reminded of what we already know so well.

HaShem gave you a mind and a heart to know what you need. Do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe.
HaShem wants you to live. Reply

Anonymous September 24, 2017
in response to Binyamin:

Thank you. Reply

Joshua cT September 7, 2017

Compellling essay and best headline ever!
Deep and profound and clearly explained.
Yes there are many pitfalls along the way of return
However there are solid and proven ways to return
Reb Tzvi thank you for doing the work to include is in the ways of Teshuvah.
This essay will help me and many others to maximize these magnificent days of Elul and Teshuvah. Reply

Sadie Chicago September 7, 2017

Just in time for the High Holidays. I'm at work reading this and crying. So beautiful and inspirational. Thank you! Reply

Pam New York September 7, 2017

This is one of the most important articles a Jew can read before the Heavenly Gates close on Yom Kippur. Thank you for writing it and reassuring us that the horror and terror some of us feel during Elul is unnecessary even though we love HaShem but are frightened by Him. Thank you so much Reply

Susan36 Austin TX September 7, 2017

Thank you! I am very moved and enlightened. Many blessings. Reply

Bracha Brooklyn September 7, 2017

Beautiful! Reply

Joseph September 7, 2017

The chains of your past are broken when you recognize the wrong and pursue the correct course . There are pitfalls in this process too , Many are listed here . Reply

Tony Bristol September 7, 2017

Thank you for this post. I know I shouldn't say it but I really do not like myself very much so I suppose that is why I put myself down to the bottom of the pecking order. If something needs doing other people are much better in doing it so why not let them. I can't stand the thought of letting G-d down though. I lost my wife 5 months ago and just hope that I didn't let her down as well. Sorry for this post. Reply

Rolf Netherlands September 9, 2017
in response to Tony:

Tony, sorry for your loss, and the things you write are recognizable in my case. but you acted with the understanding you had at that moment. and maybe later you will have some memory's were you think: i could have done better. if you ask G'd his forgiveness, He will help you. A Rabbi gave me one good advise after the death of my wife. every heartbeat, every breathing of air, is a conscious choice off Hashem that you live and learn and be thankful that you have got the time to change the things you see that have to change. He does not give up on you, don't you give up on Him ;-) Reply

Vitalah Gayle Simon Pleasantville September 10, 2017
in response to Tony:

I too am grieving a profound loss, and I am learning it is important to be very gentle with myself during this time. Reply

Esteban Fernandez September 6, 2017

Thank you so much!!! The impact of this writing has been profound. Many blessing to you and yours. Reply

Jessica Stein September 6, 2017

Wow! Lovely! Thank you! Reply

Chaya Montana September 5, 2017

That was unexpected and inspiring! Thank you! May you be abundantly blessed for sharing your wisdom. Reply

Anonymous cohen September 5, 2017

Why should we believe this instead of a Rabbi ? Reply

Rolf Netherlands September 7, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

maybe because it speaks about building up instead of breaking down? because that G'd created a man a woman to rise not for destruction, and maybe that this question you ask is your own answer because somewhere you know G'd is a Creator of Good, and Created a Good you, you are Tov but maybe did not know it (yet)
please excuse my poor english: Reply

Anonymous Florence, Colroado September 7, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Uh.... This was written by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman Reply

Sheina Shaw London September 5, 2017

As usual you do a beautiful job of bringing across the depth of chassidus in a practical enjoyable read. Reply

Anonymous Vancouver, wa September 5, 2017

I knew those were your wise words as I began to read them - G-d bless you, Tzvi! B"H! Reply

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