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The Danger of Teshuva Season

We are currently in the thick of what I like to call Teshuva Season. Starting with Rosh Chodesh Elul and continuing through Hoshana Rabbah, this time of year gives us a full seven weeks of reflection, repentance, and self-reproach. It is known as a time to mend our relationships with others and with God, our chance to beg for forgiveness lest our names be excluded from the Book of Life for the coming year.

As someone who recovered from depression and had, at one point in time, a very low sense of self-worth, this time of year can be deeply triggering for me. Year after year we are taught to repent for our sins, leading many of us to feel that the more we suffer over our mistakes, the greater our chances will be of deserving forgiveness and salvation. I remember growing up in school and hearing about how we needed to beg God to spare us our lives. I remember hating myself for feeling like I wasn’t strong enough to fully commit to certain mitzvot. I remember thinking during Yom Kippur services that there was no way I deserved to live another year because of the many sins I felt I had done. No one ever said these things to me, and yet these were the messages I absorbed from my teachers every September.

Many people can use this feeling of guilt in a way that is healthy and constructive, turning them into powerful motivators for change. I am not one of those people. If I’m not careful and disciplined with my thoughts, my guilt turns into a bitter tirade against myself. In this way the Yom Kippur craze can become a tool for masochism that is sneakily disguised as religious fervor. Even without an active behavior, the self-loathing mentality is one that indulges those inner demons I work so hard to silence and yet find so difficult to ignore.

Don’t get me wrong—the process of teshuva is an extremely important part of our religion and can be a transformative healing process when done correctly. The opportunity to confront our loved ones and iron out the tensions that may have arisen over the year has lead to repaired relationships that may not have been mended otherwise. But I’ve often found that instead of focusing on thoughtful improvement, the emphasis is placed on shame and remorse.

I know it’s not healthy for me to think about myself the way many other Jews think about themselves around this time of year. So then what should I do on Yom Kippur? How do I engage in teshuva? To be honest I’m still figuring that part out. I’ve found it better, healthier, for me to replace the Teshuva Season guilt with Teshuva Season constructive analysis and forward planning. My reflective questions are phrased in ways that might admittedly resemble a professional development seminar more closely than they resemble repentance. What was challenging for me this past year? What could I have done better, and what can help me improve those things in the coming year? In which area did I make progress? How can I apply my strengths in new and productive ways?

If this feels like a cop-out to you, ask yourself this: Do you think a recovering alcoholic should drink on Purim? Should someone recovering from anorexia fast on Tzom Gedaliah? The truth is that these answers will be different for everyone, and in each of these cases we should be speaking with our religious leaders and therapists about how to best fulfill our religious obligations while also protecting ourselves. But if you’re at all like me, take some time to think about the ways in which Teshuva Season affects your relationship with yourself and with Hashem. What is it that you’re doing when you focus on your mistakes for a month and a half? Is it constructive? Is it harmful?

How can we transform this unique opportunity for self-improvement from a guilt-ridden punishment into something productive, nourishing, and healthy?

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