Written with Sarah Green, PsyD
Navigating the Yomim Noraim and the Teshuva Process
A massively important aspect of Jewish holidays in contrast with other holidays is that, while other holidays are generally commemorative, Jewish holidays are happening in the present. During Pesach, there is actual freedom to tap into. During Chanuka, there’s a light in the darkness of geula to hold on to. The Ramchal in Derech Hashem discusses this concept, that time in Judaism works like a screw: as you move down the screw, a year later, and a year later, you reach the same point along the screw, but further down. When you get to that same point, you’re able to access the same special qualities of that time, year after year after year. One of the main pillars of the Yomim Noraim is teshuva. To access this incredible process, let’s deep dive into the topic.
Teshuva was put into this time of year immediately following the sin of Adam and Chava. With that initial sin, Hashem created in this world a concept of teshuva. Prior to this, teshuva did not exist. Teshuva is really a miraculous feature of this world - one can actually repair his mistakes in this world. But what is this process of repair?
The process of teshuva requires four steps. They are (1) stop doing the sin, (2) regret, (3) confess, and (4) plan for a different future. The first three steps of teshuva are acceptance-based; meaning, they aren’t yet about change, they are all about accepting and being with reality as it is. Acceptance often comes along with uncomfortable emotions, such as anxiety, anger, sadness, shame, and guilt. We don’t accept things we like or approve of. Acceptance is helpful when things are hard, and we don’t like them. The things we need acceptance around bring up fear and discomfort and things we wish were different. When it comes to teshuva, we don’t do teshuva for things we’re doing right. We do teshuva for things we’re doing wrong. And that brings up unpleasant feelings. Owning the wrong means being uncomfortable, it means being in an unwanted reality, exactly as it is. And so acceptance is the foundation for the initial process of teshuva.
Only once we accept reality as it is can, we actually move toward change. Only then can we reach that final step of making a commitment to change, to grow, to work harder. Dialectics, the foundation of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), is about holding more than one truth at the same time. “I am really strong in many areas, and I need to put in more effort with my time management skills.” It’s accepting that you have many strengths, while also recognizing what you need to work on. Both are true. The process of teshuva embodies the dialectic of acceptance and change. When we think of teshuva, we often associate it with feeling badly about ourselves and changing our behavior. When taking a closer look though, an integral part of the teshuva process is the opposite of change; it is essential to begin with total acceptance of the current reality, without any acknowledgment of change. To sit with the current reality and confess where we are right now is our first task. We can only really create change through full and complete acceptance.
Acceptance Leads to Change
A common myth about acceptance is that if I accept reality, then I won’t change. That without being completely unaccepting of myself, what will push me? If I don’t put myself down and focus on berating myself, why would anything change? The opposite, however, is true. The more we are stuck in non-acceptance, the more likely we are to be unable to change our reality. However, if we accept reality and say, “this is where I am right now” and fully acknowledge that, it frees up space to then actually change the situation. If I find myself constantly behaving in a certain way that is not in line with my goals/values, hiding from it or denying it doesn’t actually change anything. Only once I look at the problem behavior in the face and say out loud that this is where I am at, this is what reality currently looks like, then can I bring about change! Then I can move into the process of brainstorming, problem solving, and making real plans for things to be different. The change process is then stemming straight from our acceptance, and we are free to make real change, unhindered by the inability to be present with reality as it is.
How does that change happen? Let’s back up and discuss another concept in DBT that is important for the teshuva process. Every emotion on the human spectrum of emotions was created by Hashem and serves a purpose. Every emotion we experience makes sense and is valid. At the same time, emotions can at times be effective and helpful for us, and at other times, less so. For example, it is effective to feel anxious when I am in a dangerous situation, as the anxiety will motivate me to escape and run away. There are times though when our emotions, their intensity, or duration “do not fit the facts”, or are ineffective, and then we want to change that emotion. Emotions love themselves, and to keep themselves going when reality isn’t fueling them, they need us to behave and think like they want us to. So to cut off an unhelpful emotion, the emotion's food source, the behaviors and thoughts fueling it, need to get cut off. The skill of opposite action is the way to do this through behavior. Emotions can be changed by identifying the action urge that comes along with that emotion, and then acting opposite to it. For example, the action urge when feeling sadness is to withdraw and isolate. Therefore, unhelpful sadness will decrease if I get active. This is definitely tough, as it means doing exactly what we do not want to do, and it reduces or eliminates the unwanted emotion. “Acharei hapeulos nimshachim halevavos”. Our emotions can, in fact, change as a result of our actions and behavior.
Shame vs. Guilt
Two of our primary emotions are shame and guilt. They often, unfortunately, get confused, which is the source of a lot of problems around the Yomim Noraim. To define them, shame is a feeling of I am wrong, and guilt is I did something wrong. Guilt fits with reality and is effective when our behavior violates our own values or moral code. The emotion of guilt can actually be extremely helpful in many circumstances because when we violate our own values, guilt motivates us to repair. Guilt is an emotion of “go”. The action urge is to go, repair, and fix the wrong we caused. Shame, on the other hand, is an emotion of “stop”. The action urge is to hide. This emotion is helpful when we will be rejected by a person or group that we care about if our personal characteristics would be made public. An example of effective shame is when Nevuchadnetzar was caught by Melech Tzidkiyahu eating a live bunny rabbit. He made him promise that he would not tell anyone about his behavior, or he would gouge his eyes out. He was clearly trying to hide his behavior. Why? Because he had effective shame. If you are eating live bunny rabbits, you will get rejected by most social circles, and so your shame is effective. The problem with shame is that we often act on it in times when it does not fit the facts as we would not actually be socially rejected. For example, you may feel embarrassed sharing with your friend that you are going through a hard time and although it definitely makes sense why you’d be feeling ashamed about it, the shame is not helpful because your friends just want to support you and care for you and won’t reject you for those things.
Steps to Teshuva
When guilt fits reality, meaning we have actually violated our own values, and shame is not effective, these are the steps for opposite action, as described in the standard DBT handouts:
Make your behavior public (only to those you are close with and won’t reject you)
Apologize for your behavior
Repair the transgressions, or work to prevent or repair similar harm for others
Commit to avoiding that mistake in the future
Accept the consequences gracefully
Does this not sound familiar?! This is exactly the teshuva process, as outlined by a non-Jewish psychologist based on the science of emotions. Vidui involves confessing and saying out loud what I did wrong; Charata is regretting and apologizing for this sin; Azivas hachet means stopping the behavior; and lastly, Kabbalah al ha’asid is not doing this aveirah again in the future by committing to a real plan. As humans, we of course mess up and do things that are not in line with our values. The teshuva process is our biggest gift from Hashem, one of the major miracles created with the creation of the world.
How did Dr. Linehan know about the teshuva process without learning it from a sefer or a teacher? When we mess up and make a mistake, we feel effective guilt, if we allow ourselves to feel it. Effective guilt’s job is to motivate us to repair. Helpful guilt naturally motivates the teshuva process, exactly as it is. Guilt, when we make mistakes, is helpful and therefore needs to be felt all the way. It can be an uncomfortable emotion, and it leads us toward the lives we want to live. We are so fortunate to have been taught this process and encouraged to engage in it even without knowing anything about DBT. That is a serious gift.
The Problem with Shame
Feeling shame when you mess up, that there is something inherently wrong with you, is not helpful. Shame stops us from acting on effective guilt. It shuts us down and encourages us to stop, to hide. In other words, the emotion of shame actually stops the process of teshuva! If I do an aveira and allow for guilt, it will motivate me to repair. If I entertain shame, that this act says something about me as a person, it literally stops me from making steps towards anything being different. Opposite action for shame brings down the emotion by encouraging owning our mistakes as the first step out of shame, out of I am wrong, and into guilt, where I make mistakes and make things right again.
How do we move from natural guilt to unhelpful shame? By adding a judgment to our mistakes. Mistakes start to say something about me as a person when I assign them meaning. The emotion of shame often comes along with a thought of “I am bad” or “I am a failure” or “there is something wrong with me”. In Judaism, there is a concept of a tzadik and a rasha. In this world, though, we have no right to assume whether anyone in particular is tzadikim or reshaim. In fact, we are expected to see ourselves as beinonim who await final judgment until Yom Kippur. We can be a tzadik or a rasha in olam haemes, and in this world, we don’t know, so we assume we are beinonim. We are supposed to consider ourselves beinonim as long as we are in this world. Even labeling ourselves as good invites problems, because it essentially means that if I did this bad thing, it could flip, and now I am bad. Or I was a good person until I did this bad thing.
This thought process gets us stuck. Even when I made decisions that went against my moral values, or I am unhappy with, or got me into trouble, I am not entitled to call myself a rasha. I can acknowledge my behavior, feel effective guilt, and engage in the teshuva process. In DBT, we work to let go of judgments and stick with the facts. Judgments get us stuck. Doing something wrong, or even a lot of somethings, or even a big something, doesn’t entitle me to assign a judgment of rasha my personhood, and is highly ineffective, as we just discussed. I need to acknowledge my behavior, feel effective guilt, and engage in the teshuva process. A person can change his entire standing in one instance of teshuva. So, who are we to judge ourselves as good or bad?
It is our opinion that a major problem facing our generation is the unintentional replacement of guilt with shame during the Yomim Noraim. We’ve been socialized to view our self-worth as tied to our actions, and so I’m only okay if everything I do, think, say is okay. Tolerating that we are humans who make mistakes allows us to repair, but it also opens the painful reality that we are humans who make mistakes. If it’s about me as a person, there’s the chance for me to be good and therefore to be okay. That’s a much more comfortable reality. So we tend toward shame where guilt would be helpful; we hide and feel safer; we don’t need to confront or repair our mistakes; but nothing actually gets better. Letting go of shame, of there is something inherently wrong with me, means accepting that we are fallible humans who make mistakes and that those mistakes can actually be fixed with new plans to do better next time in place.