It can be a challenge to do the work of teshuva, of repentance and personal change, in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays. For some of us, it’s connected directly to our feelings of shame about how we have acted. Sometimes, that shame makes us runs from our misdeeds instead of confronting them.
As the renowned sociologist of shame Brene Brown explains, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionistswe’re so easy to keep quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.” Being able to talk about what we are ashamed of with a trusted friend or therapist brings light to that darkness, and enables us to then take steps to rectify the situation.
Especially for those of us already prone to be our own worst critics, we must start not with harsh judgment of ourselves but with compassion. The process of teshuva is not so that we beat ourselves up and feel like terrible people. It’s so that we can start anew, with a clean slate, and not drag any baggage into the new year.
My teacher Rabbi Art Green explains a teaching of the Sefat Emet: “The Book of Life is within you… God needs to write ‘Life!’ on the tablets of your heart each year. Your task is to keep those inner tablets free enough from the accumulated grime caused by sin, guilt, and the insanely fast pace at which we live, and all the rest, so that you have time to read (and follow!) that holy word.”
It’s not that our fate is written during the holidays. It’s that it is again revealed, for life, if we are able to do the compassionate work of clearing away what is covering it over.
Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.