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Yom Kippur Without Guilt

Yom Kippur Without Guilt

On Memory, Remorse and Returning


Hi Rabbi Freeman:

I want to know, what does the process of examining one's past deeds undertake for someone who abandoned a religious lifestyle because she was abused by the authority figures of that system?

Or someone who grew up in a world where there was no moral standard, and just now is starting out on a path guided by Torah and mitzvahs?

Or for someone struggling with trauma or depression? Someone who already feels rotten about herself?

In all these cases, beating your chest and crying out, “I have sinned! I have sinned! Forgive me!” seems a mockery at best, and could even be self-abusive.


You’ve latched onto a common fundamental error concerning Yom Kippur: That it’s about the past.

Get this straight: The past is done with. What happened happened. A moment of time came as a lightning bolt out of nowhere, did its thing, and retreated back into the void. Gone.

Life is about where you’re at right now. Don’t waste a precious moment now messing around with what was then and exists no longer.

Memories, on the other hand, exist in the now. They haunt you, they nag you, they drag you down. They dictate who you must think you are and what you must believe you are incapable of.

But since they exist in the now, you can reframe them. Just rewrite the narrative, using the same elements, but leading along a different path. Like taking a long, wriggly string, and pulling it from the end to straighten it out. So too you can straighten out the story of how you got here.

Listen to the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in chapter 29 of Tanya (italics are my own):

You return with your heart.
And the heart has many facets and layers.
Everything is measured by who you are at this time in this place.
If now the fire of your soul is not burning bright, it’s time to return yet higher.

Who are you now, here, in this place? How much deeper has your heart become? How much higher have you learned to reach? And what are the memories that hold you down, prisoner to your past self?

So you were justified in what you did back then.So you were justified in what you did back then. Or maybe you weren’t. Who cares? It’s holding you down. It wasn't your fault. You had no other choice. You made the right decision, given the dark and smelly junk they were throwing at you. You didn't sin. You didn't sin.

Or maybe you did. We all have choices. Maybe you took a bad turn.

Who cares? None of that matters. All that matters is where you want to get now.

What's holding you back from getting there? That you identify with the past.

Drop It

Try this: Imagine you’re hurtling through distant space on a rocket ship. There’s a module attached that held fuel. It was real useful. In fact, it got you to this point. But it’s empty now.

So what do you do? You jettison it. And now you move even faster.

Or imagine yourself drifting above, carried in the basket of a hot-air balloon. All you had to do was cut the rope that tied you down, and you soared upward towards the heavens. But now, you’ve reached a plateau. You’re no longer rising.

What do you do? You throw over a few sandbags, and rise yet higher.

Those sandbags were useful at one time. Without them, you would have risen too high too quickly. But now, they’ve gained a new purpose. They’ve become a means for you to elevate yourself—by throwing them overboard.

Even your rebellion—maybe it came from outrage and indignation with hypocrisy. All your experiments with life—maybe they were part of your journey, your search for truth and meaning.

But now it’s time to move ahead. That indignation, that search, that struggle, it needs a new context. You need to see past the persona who did those things, you need to see inside. Because, otherwise, you’re stuck in the ditch at the side of the road.

You are aYou are a Lamborghini sitting still on the highway, because you haven’t noticed the rush-hour traffic has passed. Lamborghini sitting still on the highway, because you haven’t noticed the rush-hour traffic has past.

You are the heir to a magnificent estate living on the street, because that’s all you know. That’s who you believe you are.

Fly High

But you’re not. You are a divine soul. And the only way to turn around your self-concept is to look back in those memories, look deeper, with the maturity and depth of insight you’ve gained, to find within those stories an innocent child of G‑d, one who never really was any of those things you did—and to rescue that spark of innocence from there.

It will taste bitter. Those sandbags—they're holding you down. But only for a moment. A single tear of bitterness, and the sandbag falls to oblivion.

On Yom Kippur, a Jew says, “Master of the Universe, Infinite Light, You made such amazing creations, You are such mystery, so awesome, so beautiful—and yet You want to unite with puny, little me, regardless of all my flaws and failures.”

“Yes, I sinned. I was standing before You, and I was not aware. How could that be? You were always there with me, and so I was with you. And I want to be always together with You.”

You jettison your baggage and hurtle into deep space.

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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S United Kingdom September 26, 2017

Beautiful advice. Reply

Raquel Florida October 18, 2017

If not taking responsibility for our sin is so easy, why the sacrifice of live animals at the Temple to 'cover' our sins?

These thoughts -- "Who cares?" "None of that matters," "All that matters is where you want to get now," -- seem overly "man" centered. Proverbs 20:24 questions our ability to understand our ways...

Especially at Yom Kippur we turn to Hashem and ask him to forgive us for sinning (missing the mark); ask his help to repair the damage we're mixed up in (we showed up for it, right?).

We turn to him for all our needs. Because that's where life is.

It may come as a surprise that life is not all about doing it "my way." We discover this, some sooner than others.

We return (teshuva) to him and ask forgiveness. We ask him to reveal himself; we watch, we trust, we believe. This is Yom Kippur.

Redemption's another matter. It's coming soon for our people. Reply

Sue Kanata October 2, 2017

I needed that! Thank you, Rabbi freeman, there is so much kindness and the true loving, forgiving nature of what we worship as the Creator essence.
I really love you for this wonderful outreach of yours, especially this essay! Reply

Anonymous Boston, USA September 29, 2017

What a great article- thank you! I sometimes find the ethical demands of this season overwhelming, and I feel bad when I think about past failures and mistakes, even from childhood. I really like this approach of reframing, learning, and then moving upwards. Reply

Rebecca New York September 29, 2017

Here it is erev Yom Kippur and I was looking for a new way to approach the day. I liked what you said about jettisoning the past until I remembered the prayers we say, particularly the 'al chayt'. Doesn't that all refer to the past deeds and aren't we seeking forgiveness for those actions? The past seems to play a big part of the day. How do I get passed that?

G'mar chatimah Tova to you and yours. Reply

Jeremy M Haifa September 29, 2017

To save someone less literally minded a disappointment...the rocket metaphor is accurate.

When you jettison unneeded parts, you do not speed up. The unneeded parts stay close to the rocket, moving at the same speed as before. (until gravity kicks in)

The difference is -- the new fuel you start using -- it speeds you up a lot more than it would have with the extra weight. Reply

Tzvi Freeman September 29, 2017
in response to Jeremy M:

Thank you, Jeremy, for the explanation. Very helpful. Reply

anonymous September 29, 2017

Rabbi Freeman,

How can a person trust that this new year will be good? Not hypothetically, or in hindsight, but actually good? Trying to be joyous but cannot deny the frustrations of what has been a difficult and painful passage of time. Thank you. Reply

Tzvi Freeman September 29, 2017
in response to anonymous :

This is a fundamental, common error concerning trust in G-d.

You don't trust in G-d because things will be good. Things will be good because you trust in G-d that they will be good.

Why does it work? Because by trusting in G-d, you allow His goodness to enter your life clearly and openly.

Think good, it will be good. Reply

sunil subba India September 29, 2017

The pasts mistakes once learned is worth a try as the mistakes which were committed by oneself is easy to let go as usually they were committed without the awareness.What i have learnt with mistakes committed by others is that they do what they do according to their personality which is correct to them but wrong to you.Once we understand that we too behave in a way which others might not find suitable then its easy to forgive those who have wronged us.With regards to mistakes sometimes i wonder if i had the wisdom which i have now at that earlier period then it would definately have made a difference but its never too late to learn. Reply

steve September 28, 2017

As always, you express ideas simply, elegantly, and beautifully.
Thank you, Rabbi Freeman. Reply

Liana September 28, 2017

Thank you so much Rabbi!
I identify somehow with some of your examples. Truly I appreciate your advices and I will take them wholeheartedly. G-d bless you even more!
Liana Reply

Robert Newhouse Stillwater September 28, 2017

Poetically written. Beautiful. The only problem is trying to ignore the past, or forgetting the memories doesn't work in the long run. Those pesky memories keep re-surfacing at just the wrong time; watching a sunset, eating dinner with a loved one. Suddenly the bad memory surfaces out of no where and ruins the moment. Our good intentions have insufficient power over silencing these memories. But, gathering courage, we can go to that person we offended, humble ourselves before them and ask for their forgiveness. We have taken responsibility for what we did, humbled ourselves before them and are free. Or, the person who hurt us - how do we get rid of the bitterness we have towards them? We forgive them. "Bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you" the bitterness dissolves and we are free to enjoy the miracle of the moment of now. Reply

Anonymous Ny September 28, 2017
in response to Robert Newhouse:

I don't think it means to ignore the past, rather to use the past as means for the future. It's like throwing off a sandbag. You truly assess the past and see it with all its angals , and regret it. but after that you're done with it and you're moving forward. However do not see the past as a source of agony that limits you in the present. In other words you move beyond it. This is my understanding. Reply

Tzvi Freeman Los Angeles September 28, 2017
in response to Robert Newhouse:

Robert, we don't ignore those memories. We reframe them. Just as we do to those who suffer trauma, or harbor resentment to parents.

We can take the same material and weave a very different story. In this story, you always really wanted to do the right thing. Reply

Anonymous September 29, 2017
in response to Tzvi Freeman:

You're trying to say there is absolutely no aspect of remorse and regret? What is this a new physiological
method? What does this have to do with the godly soul? Perhaps you're referring to the idea that the essence of the soul stays faithful to god even at the time of sin. So in other words you're saying that you should realize that in essence in only the animal soul that sines, but the godly soul was faithfully all along? Reply

rena tzfat September 27, 2017

positively brilliant
as we've come to expect from Rabbi Freeman
such a lovely way to go into Yom Kippur Reply

Alan London September 27, 2017

Perfect. Thank you. I struggle many times with my imperfect and often nauseating past, it can hang over me like a dark cloud. Today i came here for a practical search for something on Yom Kippur, and I have left with the gift of life. Reply

Heather Isaacson Pincher Creek, September 27, 2017

I want to thank the person for asking the question I could not ask. Thank you Rabbi Freeman for a confirmation that I have been going slowly, sometimes very slowly, in the right direction for a few years. I often read your articles thank you again. Reply

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