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.