Yom Kippur is translated as the Day of Atonement. And what do we do on Yom Kippur? We confess our sins. Why do many feel uncomfortable with these words? Perhaps because they don’t sound so Jewish. Let’s try to clarify the proper Jewish understanding of many of the terms that are used at this time of year.
All for Us, Not for G-d
To begin this process, we need to go back to the very foundations of Jewish thought. As we have discussed previously, (in the article on the Chosen People), since G-d is perfect and lacking nothing, the creation of the world cannot be in any way for G-d. It can’t be because, for example, G-d was bored, or curious, or lonely. The purpose must, therefore, be for the sake of the creation, and, most specifically, mankind.
That means that the mitzvot, the various dos and don’ts which G-d gave us to guide our lives, must also be exclusively for our benefit. How, then, should we feel if we transgressed any of them? We should feel that we ourselves missed out. This is surprisingly difficult for us to feel. How do we generally feel when we have transgressed? Guilty. To appreciate just how absurd this feeling of guilt is, imagine the following story.
Someone asks if he could borrow a valuable family heirloom of yours. You agree to lend it to him but caution him to be extremely careful, since it is irreplaceable. But then, through his gross negligence, he either loses or ruins it. How do we think this fellow will feel? Probably very guilty.
Now consider the same story with one important difference. There is a valuable family heirloom. And it is also lost or ruined through gross negligence. But in this second scenario, the heirloom does not belong to anyone else. The person ruined or lost his own family heirloom. He is certainly going to feel terrible, but it will be a different negative feeling. Now he will probably feel regret.
I want to suggest the following distinction between guilt and regret:
Guilt is the bad feeling we have when we let someone else down.
Regret is the bad feeling we have when we let ourselves down.
Now, let’s think how one who transgresses should feel. Logically, he should feel regret, since he let himself down. However, he is more likely to feel guilt. Why is this?
The Ironic Desire for Guilt
My Rosh Hayeshiva, Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, spoke about the ridiculous way that people relate to doing the right thing. We feel that somehow we are doing G-d a favor and helping Him out. Therefore, we tend to feel proud of ourselves when we do what is right, as opposed to simply feeling fortunate that we did what was beneficial for ourselves. He would, therefore, often remind us, when we did something good, to “take pleasure, not pride!”
Similarly, when we do the wrong thing, we usually feel guilt, as opposed to regret. As unpleasant as it may be to feel guilty in relation to G-d for what we did, there is also something ironically attractive about it. It helps us to maintain the illusion that we weren’t so stupid or self-destructive as to have directly damaged ourselves through the transgression that we did (even though, of course, that is exactly what we did do).
By the way, if the transgression involved hurting another person, then guilt, the bad feeling we have when we let someone else down, is obviously appropriate. It is only when the transgression primarily involved our relationship with G-d that guilt is illogical.
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Rabbi Asher Resnick serves as a senior lecturer at Aish HaTorah’s Executive Learning Center, and is a senior training lecturer for Aish’s Rabbinical Ordination program. As a close student of Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, he developed a special expertise in addressing fundamental issues in Judaism, as well as in bringing classical texts to life. As a bereaved parent, Rabbi Resnick’s extensive writings on loss, suffering and trauma provide a sensitive Jewish perspective on coping with these fundamental life cycle issues. Olami & NLEResources.com is happy to highlight several essays over the coming months featured on his website JewishClarity.com.