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Responsibility and guilt on the high holy days

Content warnings: self-hate, bad feelings, mentions of suicidal thoughts and intrusive thoughts

This is the first year I have been able to attend Yom Kippur services and avoid suicidal thoughts. I even managed to stay away from more pedestrian intrusive thoughts of self-harm. I am being blatant and specific about this because I have not read other people doing so. I have wanted to read these words, or words like them, and I have needed to feel less alone in a sea of "Yom Kippur is hard for everybody" and "at least you don’t have to fast" (because of my physical medical problems) and "Really? I love Yom Kippur."

This year, for the first time in my life, I actually felt a sense of closure with Neilah services. What I usually feel is continued guilt over my "sins", lasting through the evening and the year. Other people feel relief, an end to the closer-than-usual consideration of their own negative actions, but I (and people like me) can’t really stop just because we’re supposed to. I fall into guilt not only for the bad things I’ve done, but into a cognitive distortion spiral of depression, feeding what I call my jerkbrain (so named because it is a lying jerk).

I am immensely pleased I’m not dealing with a depression spiral this year. I’m not sure exactly what to credit with this change, but there are three main differences from previous Yom Kippurs: I have been seeing a therapist consistently and we’ve made real progress; I went to both Kol Nidre and Neilah services, but skipped the daytime prayers and rested at home instead; and I went to a service that did not use the full traditional liturgy, specifically using an altered (though no less harsh) vidui.

Jews do vidui (confession) in first person plural. We have done [insert list of bad things here], because we as a community contain people who might’ve done any of those things. If you personally have not done a given bad thing in the list, you still say it along with everyone else. We as a community are responsible for each other, is the message, while also reinforcing that we do need to consider a little closer what sins we’ve actually done. The bulk of vidui consists of two acrostics: a longer (Al Chet) and a shorter (Ashamnu).

Pieces of the original Al Chet text chafe for me. It includes 'perversion’ and ‘lewdness’ when I see queer sexuality as a source of holiness and joy, ‘frivolity’ when I do not see seriousness as a virtue. It forces us to apologize for ‘a confused heart’ when doubt and questioning are jewish values, and decries 'pride and stubbornness' when I have been working hard to inhabit these as strengths when appropriate.

The version of Al Chet that I experienced at Kadima this year was more fitting and better suited to introspection that answers the questions I actually need to answer: For what are we collectively and individually at fault? Where should we step further into repair work? It was divided into four levels: self, family, community, society, being pointed in the questions of our time politically and interpersonally, about forgiving the self and building community we all need. Each section was still punctuated with the traditional refrain: V’al kulam elohai slichot, slach lanu mchal lanu kaper lanu. For all these, G-d of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us. And an English addition: For all of these we ask for forgiveness. For each one of these misdeeds, we forgive.

Vidui has a worthy purpose, but it is designed for brains that are not depressed. It is for people that start out assuming they have not sinned. It is designed to take people from a place of "I’m probably doing fine" to "oh shit, I am complicit in bad things; let’s look into some specifics and do better next year." For people who start from a place of assuming they are wrong, whether this is a result of faulty brain chemistry or a reaction to past abuse, reading a list of things bad things ‘we' have done is the opposite of helpful. We start at a place of ’this is bad, I am saying I have done this, therefore I am bad’ and arrive at 'I am unforgivable and unrecoverable’, which is not actually an accurate view of any person.

When I discuss this issue with people, the first advice I get about this is to be kinder to myself. It’s a good goal, but only half the puzzle. My aim for the self-reflection and internal accounting in the days of awe is not necessarily a less negative result, but a more accurate and less distorted one. I don’t want to change vidui to make it easy. I honestly believe everyone could use the self-reflection involved, if we can manage to think about where we’ve actually missed the mark rather than how we are, individually, The Worst.

I have, for my entire life, experienced Yom Kippur and teshuvah in general through the lens of guilt. It would be better to approach them through the lens of responsibility. We have all done things we need to atone for. By situating these harms in guilt we focus on ourselves, our feelings and (if your brain works like mine) Intrinsic Badness instead of centering those harmed. Responsibility is a better frame. Responsibility centers the problem or the restorative action necessary. It contains potential for teshuvah, while still being clear and honest about ownership of righting the wrong.

The traditional shorter acrostic, ashamnu, uses each letter of the alphabet once, with one exception. It ends with two lines for the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet: we have gone astray and, separately, we have led others astray. We have all done bad things, and been complicit in bad things happening. The optimal reaction to this is not avoidance or focusing on self-centered guilt; it is owning our responsibility and working towards teshuvah on personal, interpersonal, community, societal levels. We need to do work to forgive ourselves as much as we need to collectively act towards tikkun olam, whether that takes the form of climate justice work, activist art, everyday mutual aid, or something else entirely.

"You are not the bad thing," says my therapist, "even if you did a bad thing." I am working on believing her. Hearing this from a trusted person who knows me helps the pieces slide into place. I have responsibility for my mistakes and bad actions, but thinking about them should not poison my thoughts for all eternity or be tools for my brain to convince me to harm myself.

May all of us be sealed into the book of life for the next year.

Counting the omer

When I was a kid, my dad and i would sit together every night before bed and count the omer. It was a special "us time", counting together, practicing the numbers in hebrew and doing quick math to turn the day-count into weeks.

Marking time is good for me. I get depressed, especially but not exclusively in winter, and I struggle with time slipping away from me since I exist in an relatively unstructured life. There’s bills that need paying, there’s laundry that needs done, there’s groceries and cat litter and medication refills, so I have to pay some attention and stay tethered to a linear timeline.

But there’s also the cherry trees blooming, including the one outside my kitchen window that tends to hit a little earlier than the rest. There’s traditional shabbat services I help lead the 2nd shabbat of each (gregorian calendar) month. There’s flipping the month over in each of the 4 calendars in my apartment. There's shabbat shalom texts in the family group chat. There’s looking at the Radical Jewish Calendar when I feel disconnected and unimportant, and seeing things that happened today in history connected to my political and philosophical and religious ancestors, seeing ActUp meetings and activist yahrzeits next to the week’s torah portion.

Judaism is not, broadly speaking, for people who feel like they have it all figured out. It is for people like me and people like you, people living a day at a time and trying to have that make sense in a context, in any context. It is a religion of people for whom counting each day, one by one, between the pilgrimage holidays of liberation and of receiving the torah, of planting and harvest, is an achievement. Of people who struggle with introspection and self-improvement, of people who have mental illnesses or trouble existing sometimes, who come from weird families and broken people and persistently forever trying to overcome intergenerational trauma and hereditary mental illnesses.

It is for us.

This is the second year of my adult life I’m counting the omer with the sefirot. For each day, we say the standard blessing, count the days in between, mark the time, and think on a combination of Gdly attributes. I use this guide, primarily, tweaking wording as occasionally my interpretations of the attributes differ from theirs (based on my surface level learnings from Rav Wikipedia, of course). There’s a bunch of similar guides on Ritualwell, including this list of shorter daily prompts. I am tracking my daily reactions to the prompts in this Mastodon thread if you’d like to read them.

The sun will set tonight, and rise tomorrow, and set again, and after each of these sunsets I am committing to (at least) saying a few sentences in hebrew with a blessing, and if I can manage it thinking about chesed/gevurah/tiferet/netzach/hod/yesod/malchut in pairwise combinations, reflecting on whether I am managing that particular combination (in that order) well or poorly, where to improve, what my goals are, and who I want to be.