by Payam Refaeilzadeh
The topic for this week is guilt and Judaism. You may read the title and think to yourself: “what does vanity have to do with guilt?” The answer is “everything.” This realization has changed my whole outlook on life and I have been sitting here staring at a blank screen for a while trying to think how I can convey this idea in a way that it will stick, in a way that it will create that spark of realization that happened for me and also in a way that doesn’t offend my reader too badly (I don’t think anyone likes to be called vain). In the end I have chosen not to sugar coat it and be very blunt. This may challenge your conventional wisdom and push you out of your comfort zone and for that I apologize.
I must confess that the root of these ideas are not my own, but rather those of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, or at least my understanding of them. I must further confess that I am by no means a master of chassidus, and perhaps not even a good student of it, and thus would love to hear from those better versed on the topic about the thoughts I lay out here.
Like many, growing up I saw a lot of guilt around Judaism. Eating out? You should feel guilty – it aint kosher. Driving on shabbat? You should feel guilty – you are breaking G-d’s commandment, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU! Then I came into contact with a particular Orthodox group who had a different outlook. I will not mention the name, because this is not supposed to be an endorsement of one particular group over another nor a declaration that one has a monopoly on the truth, but I am sure some of you already know who I am talking about. These people were strange creatures. They observed traditional Jewish law quite strictly yet they were very open to the least Jewish of the Jews among us. There was no guilt, only acceptance. You drive to shul on Shabbat? OK … welcome! (it is still not OK actually but let’s not talk about it – you are here now, so welcome) This is the attitude I saw and it took me by surprise. Later I learned the guy who started this movement had written a book, which he had titled (roughly translated) “A book for the rest of us” Not a book for the perfect ones, nor the wicked ones, but a guide for the common Jew who is never going to achieve perfection no matter how hard he tries. I started learning a little bit about the philosophy laid out in this book and it turned out it was centered around guilt and depression.
After that not-so-brief tangent which I felt compelled to include to give some background, I would now like to return my focus to the topic at hand: Guilt. We face it everyday and it leads to depression. Where does it come from? You do something wrong or something you feel you shouldn’t have, you feel guilty. Why can’t I do things right? Am I a bad person? Am I going to get punished for this in some other life?
OK this is the part where I make you feel uncomfortable. ready? Here it comes:
STOP IT! You vain little creature! (I actually told myself this when the spark of realization I talked about happened) Everything is not supposed to be about you. Stop focusing so much on who you are and what you are supposed to be and focus on what you ought to be doing. Stop focusing so much on what you need (particularly on what YOU NEED to be getting out of your Judaism and spiritually) and focus a little more on what the world needs of you. Just take yourself out of the picture and the rest will work itself out.
There is a story about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, one of the greatest Jewish sages who ever lived, that when he was on his death bed he broke out in tears. When his students inquired about the reason he responded that he was refelecting on what was to come: either a world of eternal rewards or a not so good period of retribution and he realized he didn’t know which he was going to! Are you serious? This was one of greatest Jewish thinkers and he had not thought of this until this moment of death? How is this possible? Well if you think about it he had the right idea. All his life he was focusing on what is the best thing to do not the guilt associated with not doing it.
Guilt IS NOT Jewish! Whoever told you it was, sold you a big sack of lies. Stop feeling guilty and be Jewish already, would you please?