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