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Guilt, the Party-Pooper

Guilt, the Party-Pooper

Coping with that nagging sense of failure

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Hey Rabbi,

Before I started this whole Shabbat and Kosher thing, I had no idea how guilty I was supposed to feel. Then I discover there’s also say-your-daily-prayers and talk-only-nice-about-other-people and say-a-blessing-before-you-eat and a whole slew of other things to feel guilty about. Now I see myself failing almost every day, accelerating sometimes to a speed of one failure per minute.

This is getting really depressing. At times, I feel this whole halacha thing is not designed for happy-go-lucky wannabes like me. Can I get a modified, personalized version, with allowances for failure and perhaps even some down-time for guilt-free living?

—Gill T.

Hi Gill,

Okay, here’s your personalized version. It comes with:

  • Unlimited failure permit, as long as you pick yourself up afterwards and keep on trying.

  • Zero-tolerance for feelings of guilt, inadequacy, failure and remorse, except under controlled, clinical conditions.

  • Incremental, sustainable adoption of Jewish practice in all but the most crucial areas.

And that's not just your individualized program—it's everybody's.

Why?

Mitzvahs are not guilt-fertilizer. Mitzvahs are the ultimate celebration.

Because mitzvahs are not meant to be guilt-fertilizer. Just the opposite: Mitzvahs are the ultimate form of celebration. A mitzvah means you’re connecting with the Infinite Creator of the Universe on a deep, personal level. Halachah means you’re changing the world for the good. What’s more worth celebrating than that?

And there’s irrefutable proof: When you first became obligated in all this they made you a party—your bar or bat mitzvah event. If mitzvahs aren’t for celebrating, then why the party?

The earliest Torah source for that party happens to be the Zohar, where we are told to make a feast just like a wedding, to celebrate that we get to do mitzvahs.1 Proof that doing mitzvahs is a happy thing, not a do-it-or-get-zapped thing.

Now, imagine you’re making this wild bar mitzvah party with all your friends who brought a whole pile of gifts—and there’s one nudnik there standing next to you and kvetching, “What a lousy party. Your voice cracked in the middle of the Haftorah and your speech put even the rabbi to sleep. The sushi smells rotten. Your Aunt Monica didn’t even bring a gift. And your friends probably don’t even like you.”

You’ve got one of two choices: Throw the guy out, or stay far away and ignore him. And when the party is over, get your money back for the sushi.

That’s exactly what you do with guilt. Even guilt over serious, grave messups. Take the advice the of Baal Shem Tov and tell it, “Guilt, I have no time for you right now. I am too busy celebrating my mitzvahs, celebrating life and just getting stuff done. I know I messed up, I said I’m sorry, and I trust with perfect faith that G‑d has forgiven me. But you are distracting me from serving my Creator with joy—and what kind of a dumb life is that, doing all this stuff without celebration?”2

And then, one day before Yom Kippur, or sometime when you’re inspired enough and want to go even higher, you cry a little over the messes you’ve made and resolve to do even better from now on.

Success By Failure

The secret behind success is knowing how to fail.

Get this straight: The secret behind success is knowing how to fail. Failures are people who fail once. Successes are people who fail thousands of times—and pick themselves back up each time. Like little kids learning to walk. Like Babe Ruth, who held the world record for home runs—and also held the record for strike-outs.

If basketball's your game, here's a quote from Michael Jordan: “I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

There’s a reason it works that way: Everything in the world—whether it’s energy, matter, a journey or a story—moves in waves. Wherever there’s a crest, a trough is on its way. To surf those waves, you have to learn to travel the troughs just as well as the crests. When you're little, you're good at that. When you grow older, your ego doesn't let you anymore. Drop the ego, admit you're fallible like the rest of us, and allow yourself to experience success.

And that’s the way it works with mitzvahs, too. As the Baal Shem Tov put it, “It’s not the bite of the snake that kills, it’s the poison.” The bite is the failure. The poison is the kvetching voice telling you what a failure you are.

Why is that voice saying those things? To make you into a better person? To get you to do more mitzvahs? Absolutely not. There's only one objective behind its strategy, and that is to get you depressed enough that you'll give up on the whole thing. And yours seems to be succeeding.

Celebrate!

Guilt is the gateway to depression, and depression is the gateway to surrender. Celebration is the gateway to transcendence, higher and higher without end. When you're happy, you ride high above every obstacle and all the good things in life become so much easier.3

Don’t stop to talk with a snake. Boot it out of the party. There will be a time to clean up the mess. But why waste a good party arguing with a party-pooper?4

Footnotes
1.
Zohar Chadash, Breishit 20.
3.
See Tanya, chapter 33.
4.
On all the above, see Tanya, chapter 26.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, 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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anonymous ottawa December 8, 2014

To Ben Your comment is so timely. I feel exactly the same way for much more of the time then I used to. Experience has taught me that without exception, these feelings stem from avoiding doing what needs to be done, and if we don't know why we feel this way, then likely we don't know what needs doing either, and what is being avoided. But the more painful these feelings get, the closer to consciousness is the item we've been sidestepping, but can no longer sidestep without falling, is. It seems I'm running up against this a lot myself lately, but I just remind myself of a passage in a famous song from the 70's "...and it gets harder as you get older, farther away as you get closer." Keep the faith and keep going. Reply

Isaac Brooklyn NY December 7, 2014

A call to arms. Guilt instilled by Rabbis takes many forms. E.g. If one does not perform the Mitzvah in the manner prescribed, then one is led to believe, ' they will not be in some way favored by God.'
Then when a mishap happens to this person, they are further led to believe they may have committed a sin by not performing the Mitzvah properly.

Some Rabbis tend to use intimidation when unfamiliar with the reasoning behind a Mitzvah. Even unintentionally this method induces guilt.
The average Rabbi could never admit and say “I do not know the reasoning for this Mitzvah” Number 1 biggest problem. Today's Rabbis are more suited for the roll of an administrator rather than a Torah scholar, but want to be recognized only as one who knows all of Torah. “No such person” is also what they are not likely to admit to.
When these problems are solved, with the procurement of much humility, half the guilt (if not more) would be eliminated and more love of Torah attained.
With true desire, we can do this.
Reply

Paul Bourgeois December 7, 2014

Perfect? God Forbid I should be perfect. I would end up offending people. Reply

joseph ravick Powell River, BC, Canada December 7, 2014

Dump the joy busters, enbrace the joy boosters! The eneding to this article is what resonated most for me.

"Celebrate!

Guilt is the gateway to depression, and depression is the gateway to surrender. Celebration is the gateway to transcendence, higher and higher without end. When you're happy, you ride high above every obstacle and all the good things in life become so much easier.3

Don’t stop to talk with a snake. Boot it out of the party. There will be a time to clean up the mess. But why waste a good party arguing with a party-pooper?"

I facilitated a workshop for street-youth some years ago, comprised of teens and pre-teens challenged with poverty, homelessness, and drug related influences. Everybody from parents whom they'd left, to adults who passed them by in the street, to their peers, tried to manipulate them through guilt. The aphorism and graphic which seemed to resonate most for them was "Dump the joy-busters, embrace the joy-boosters!" The concept works equally well for adults; me included. Reply

Ben New Orleans December 7, 2014

Should I feel guilty if I don't want to try any more - that's a feeling (or lack thereof) too y'know? Reply

Sue England December 7, 2014

Guilt Thank you Rabbi Freeman. I am a Catholic (with a Jewish mother) and until quite recently I thought there was only "catholic guilt"! It almost made me smile when I discovered that there is "jewish guilt" as well ! And now I can only thank you most sincerely for helping me deal better with my own "mea culpa, mea maxima culpa". Reply

Anonymous December 5, 2014

This is so excellent. Thank you so much for posting this, and thank G-d for Torah, Judaism, and those who help spread HIs word, like you! :-) Reply

Joseph Connecticut December 5, 2014

Wow..toda raba Rabbi,needed to read this today,again thank you. Reply

Ros Mercer Island December 4, 2014

This is why I appreciate Chabad: the emphasis on joyfulness and a non-judgemental attitude. I am not observant but there is something really depressing about the idea of Jews everywhere performing mitzvahs out of habit, guilt and fear. Mitzvahs done with love and joy are a completely different thing. Reply

Francis X Cunnane Las Vegas December 4, 2014

How about in Psalms where Israel is Redeemed, that should remove your guilt! Reply

Anonymous Kingston December 4, 2014

So He Can Reach One Failure Per Minute, Huh? Big deal. I can do 3 a minute without even breathing hard. Reply

Doriel America December 3, 2014

torah and guilt Considering that we have so many mitzvahs to fulfill, it's easy to mess up, so here comes the guilt - we're human - we're not perfect. oy vay - I like the way Rabbi Freeman said to kick the snake out (guilt) and celebrate mitzvahs. Also, it wouldn't hurt to kick out some of the bad habits too (smile). To encourage everybody I would just like to add - There is light in the Torah - follow it and glow like a little light bulb. Reply

Jennifer Collinson Toronto December 3, 2014

Thank you Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, this message could not have come at a better time. I sincerely needed to hear it. It's difficult to see the mistakes that were made while my belief system was not based with Jewish background or Education. The Romantic version and cookie-cutter way in which Christians believe things happened and why, very confusing mixed with the condemning, guilt, sin and punishment. Makes starting on the road to recovery very EYE opening. It's hard not to see the failures all the time and feel over burdened by those failures, unworthy and at times useless to the process and the tasks ahead impossible and numerable. AGREED ..controlled clinical conditions ... Fight that snake!!!!!!!!! Reply

Richard Lennard Glasgow December 3, 2014

The lessons of morality, ethics and integrity are for me the heart of Tora. The value of the practice ritual lays in where it supports the heart. Reply

Isaac Brooklyn NY December 3, 2014

Re: Tzvi Freeman, a few questions. If the secret behind success is knowing how to fail. And successful people had failed thousands of times, like Babe Ruth, and Michael Jordan, then the Rabbis (which are considered more successful than us all when it comes to Mitzvahs) must have failed more times than most people. So why not use the Rabbis as an example rather than the achievements of sports heroes when discussing the subject of Mitzvahs?

And why in Yeshiva we are led to believe that a Rabbi cannot fail, when to fail is a virtue and aid for Mitzvah success?
And when one would question the legitimacy of a Mitzvot or the authority of a Rabbi or Torah Sage, the response always received is in the nature of, "What chutzpah to ask such a question" & "Don't even think that you will ever come close to their greatness and be on their level where you can question their dictates, etc." This is instilling guilt for just wanting to ask a question, not to mention what it does to one's confidence. Why do the Rabbis teach this way? Reply

anonymous ottawa December 3, 2014

Guilt and Levels of Heaven Having grappled with this like everyone else does, I definitely got tripped up over the "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" of Godly human comportment.

Little by little the obligation and guilt gave way to insights and little by little the insights grew into epiphanies and little by little the epiphanies translated into better functioning in the concrete, brick and mortar world. Notice all great heroes of the past, near and far, only came by their greatness through feats of high courage and great character. Spineless wieners never get to experience their latent superpowers which are born of living a pious life. What I'm saying is that a great adventure lies in wait here and beyond for those of us who will trust God and put ourselves through the paces. Reply

Mar Hartenstein Rome Scotland December 3, 2014

Because I have the Bi-Polar Affective Disorder, I used to have times of depression.
Because I am an observant Jewish woman, every day gives me opportunities for
doing mitzvos and trying to reach out. At the age of almost 73, I have been married to a non-Jewish Scot who shares my Jewish traditions and encourages me to be the person I want to be. For the past 23 years we have shared life, love and happiness.Thank you, Hashem! Reply

zak San Diego December 3, 2014

In guilt reveals correction For who all that exist can see a lamplighter. As shades of light are received at many levels. So an image never sees it’s reflection but warms to that which makes it exist. Reply

Rabbi Eli Mallon, M.Ed., LMSW December 3, 2014

In fact, it's a mitzvah NOT to be needlessly remorseful or guilt-ridden about our imperfections and mistakes, except to the extent that it motivates us to do better. Reply

suzy handler woodland hills, ca December 3, 2014

I love happiness, not only for myself but for other people. Reply

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