On Days of Awe, dont feel guilty about feeling guilty–guilts good

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I come before you, on this eve of the Jewish New Year, in praise of guilt.

Good, old fashioned, hit you right in the kishkes, guilt.

Guilt that makes you feel bad, makes you think about what you did, makes you feel, well, guilty that you did it.

Guilt has gotten a very bad rap lately. It's been seen to be wrong, antiquated, not for today.

In an age when everything is a lifestyle choice, when self-actualization is where it's at, where political correctness rules, where being judgmental is something out of the Stone Age, where tolerance is the highest value, where doing your own thing is the greatest good — there's no place for guilt.

That's especially so for Jews, with all the guilt jokes and Jewish mother jokes and shrink appointments letting us know we've absorbed too much guilt. And with everyone telling us it's time to join the mainstream, work on our self-esteem and get rid of our tendency to feel, well, guilty.

Bad enough on its own, but even worse is that we don't feel guilty about not feeling guilty. If we did, of course, that would be a start.

I remember once interviewing Rabbi David Hartman, one of the most profound Jewish thinkers of our time, who told me that he didn't really mind that the vast majority of American Jews have never visited Israel. It's always been like that, he said. What really bothered him, however, is that the vast majority of American Jews no longer feel guilty that they haven't visited Israel.

In the past, he said, they did and that was something. It meant they knew they should, it meant they might one day, it meant they felt Jewish enough to at least feel bad they weren't doing it. When you stop feeling bad about it, not only don't you go but you become less Jewish in the process.

I think he's right. Look what we've seen with intermarriage. Time was when a parent would literally sit shiva if a child married out. And that child would feel guilty about doing it and about what it did to his parent. When parents reacted less dramatically, children felt less guilty. But they still felt some level of guilt. They did it, but at least they felt guilty about it.

No more. Now it's "she/he's a wonderful person and I love him/her." So there's no reason to feel guilty.

Which is the real danger.

Without guilt, we are lost as a people.

We need guilt, not in the neurotic way portrayed in books, TV and movies but in the healthy way demonstrated throughout Jewish history, encouraged by Jewish tradition.

Everything about Judaism calls on us to do the right thing, to be a good person, to follow the path God laid out for us and guides us down.

And so many things about Judaism make us feel guilty if we don't, if we aren't, if we go astray.

Guilt is the guide that gets us back on track. It's the feeling that let's us know something's wrong and that something needs to be done to make it right.

Without that guide, without guilt, we simply go our merry way, oblivious to the fact that what we are or aren't doing isn't good and isn't good for us.

Guilt is like a pain that let's you know you need to go to the doctor before the situation gets worse. Guilt is an early warning system, a light on your dashboard telling you to pull into a mechanic and check things out.

Rosh Hashanah is all about facing our guilt head-on. We may be able to ignore it, obscure it, justify it all year round, but when Rosh Hashanah rolls around, there's no more running, no place to hide.

Rosh Hashanah is when we look back at the previous 12 months and look at all we've done, look at all we haven't done and honestly see how we feel about it all. It's when we plumb the depths of our soul and see what hurts, see what makes us feel guilty.

Anything that evokes guilt tells us we didn't live up to the standards Judaism demands of us. Anything that makes us feel guilty means we must take responsibility for it, make amends as a result of it, vow to never do it again.

Rosh Hashanah is all about guilt, not guilt in the sense of being sentenced to punishment but guilt in the sense of getting in touch with what we feel bad about, about all the things that make us feel bad, all our sins, all the ways we've fallen short.

If we feel guilt on Rosh Hashanah, we've done our job. And that is why Rosh Hashanah is ultimately such a joyous, wonderful time.

For what it does is get us in touch with where we've gone wrong before it's too late. It lets us repair things while we're still aware enough to know they need fixing. As long as we feel guilt, there is hope for us.

Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to find our guilt, focus on our guilt, to really look it straight in the face. Having done that, we can feel most fully alive, most fully Jewish and go on, renewed and rejuvenated and ready for a new year.

Society has come to make us feel guilty about feeling guilty. That is the worst thing of all, for without our guilt, we lose all perspective — our internal moral compass fails us and we are left to wander aimlessly.

The truth, as we enter Rosh Hashanah, is that guilt is good for all of us. For guilt is the necessary first step on the road to change and change is what Rosh Hashanah, and being Jewish, is all about.

May all of us feel guilty this Rosh Hashanah and so then go on to a new year full of peace, happiness, good health and joy.