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Jewish Guilt

Keeping It In The Healthy Range

Rabbi Dovid Hochberg

Q. How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb?

A. None, "I'll just sit here in the dark."

What is it about Jews and guilt? We've all experienced that heavy, depressing feeling of guilt. What is the Jewish perspective on guilt? Is guilt good or bad for you? Is it possible to feel too much guilt? How can you differentiate between the positive feeling of remorse (Teshuva) and incapacitating, negative guilt?

I believe the best way to answer these questions is to understand the function of guilt. Guilt is a very powerful and healthy emotion that keeps us honest with ourselves. It is our safeguard for inappropriate behavior. It is very difficult to do the wrong thing when we feel guilty.

Guilt is the door to Teshuva (repentance). You can't feel sorry for doing something if you don't feel badly about doing it. You can't be expected to do Teshuva for a sin you don't believe is wrong. Guilt opens our eyes to the truth about our inappropriate actions and behavior and makes us feel badly about them. It makes us aware that we have hurt others by our actions. Guilt motivates us to change.

Now here's where it gets tricky... When does guilt switch from being a healthy, positive emotion into a negative, oppressive feeling that incapacitates you and puts you into "shutdown" mode?

We say in the evening prayers, "...Remove Satan from before us and from behind us..." The meaning of removing Satan from before us is pretty clear. We are asking Hashem to prevent us from sinning. But what is the meaning of removing him from behind us? Once we have sinned, what more does Satan want from us?

The answer is very insightful. Satan's approach in convincing us to do the wrong thing usually goes something like this: "It's not such a big deal. It's only slightly wrong. Just do it one time. One time won't really matter." Yet, as soon as we give in and do the wrong thing, Satan immediately switches gears and tries to show us the enormous, negative consequences of our actions. "You did what?? How can you ever relate to Hashem again? Do you have any idea how low you have just fallen? Don't even try to continue doing anything positive anymore. It won't help. You might as well give up." Sound familiar?

After we have done the wrong thing, Satan still isn't finished with us. He desperately tries to make us feel depressed so we will continue with our negative behaviors. It is this strong, incapacitating guilt that we are asking Hashem to remove when we say, "...Remove Satan from behind us..."

So...back to our question. Now that we know guilt can be harmful as well as helpful, how can we differentiate between healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt?

Here is a simple test, based on the above explanation of prayer. Ask yourself the following question: I did the wrong thing, I feel bad, I am sorry I did it...now what? Is this feeling of guilt motivating me in a positive or negative way? Am I getting too depressed to continue doing the right thing (I am in "shutdown" mode) or am I determined to succeed the next time? The answer will help you decide what kind of guilt you are feeling. Keep in mind, if the guilt is unhealthy guilt, DON'T LISTEN TO IT. Fight it. Pull yourself out of the slump and do the right thing. You will see an immediate change in the way you feel.

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