Yom Kippur looms on the horizon. We have traveled through Elul, that month of soul searching, inner accounting, and resolve to change. We’ve listened to the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah, that heart-piercing sound, which Maimonides tells us is designed to wake us from our spiritual slumber. We have intoned the words: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.” In this time of judgment, we all engage in a great deal of self-judgment. How do we keep up our spirits and find confidence that we can, in fact, improve, rather than dropping into feelings of helplessness, anxiety, and despair?
For those who face Yom Kippur with trepidation, I will note that our sages teach us that G-d’s judgment is tempered with love and mercy. We must remember that we are judged by our Father who loves us and wants His evaluation of us to be in our favor. In addition, according to our tradition, we have tremendous spiritual merit when we pray with a community. Our personal failings are counterbalanced by the merits of those who pray around us, as well as the simple beauty of people gathering together to seek the presence of G-d.
There are multiple psychological challenges, as well as opportunities, that many encounter during this special time, and it is useful to examine some strategies we can put in place to use this time to our benefit.
As Rabbi Avraham Twerski has made abundantly clear in his books, we live in an era where there is an epidemic of low self-esteem. Life appears so complex and our tools to navigate it seem so inadequate that many people suffer from a feeling of chronic disappointment with themselves. American culture tells us that we have to display our vibrant smile and winning attitude to everyone, while avoiding sharing our troubles with others, who, we assume, don’t really want to hear them. This practice leads us all to feel that everyone else is happy, untroubled, and successful, while we are far from this.
Low self-esteem greatly undermines our ability to properly judge ourselves and face G-d’s judgment. For the sufferer of low self-esteem, the process of being judged is so painful that he emotionally shuts down, meaning he can no longer be truly engaged in the process. Thus, the absolute prerequisite to the process of facing judgment is to somehow connect to one’s own inner value and dignity.
My advice is to find that sense of dignity any way you can. Make a list of your accomplishments over the past year, making sure to remember intangible things, like bringing pleasure to others, building a relationship with G-d, or things that you have learned over the year. Accomplishments are one way to build self-esteem, but they are not the only way. Remember that, as the Torah says, you are made in G-d’s image, so there must be so much good in you. Remember that you are a Jew, and your people has a history spanning thousands of years; we have shared teachings of kindness and justice and have used our creativity to improve every society that we inhabited. You are part of a very exclusive club!
Another strategy is to seek out someone close to you and ask them to tell you what they value about you. You may be surprised by what you hear, or, you may be reminded about some important things that you have forgotten. Tell that person, in turn, what you value about him or her, and in lifting their spirits, you will have an increased sense of your own value. Love is a mirror: What we put out truly does come back to us.
The Days of Awe are indeed about judgment; but, perhaps more importantly, they are also about rebuilding. We try to turn away from unhelpful patterns of doing and being, and we try to rebuild structures, routines, and habits that serve our best selves. If we realize we have made mistakes, that should not be a problem. We can use this realization to point ourselves in a better direction.
By Dr. Michael Milgraum
Michael Milgraum is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Kensington, Maryland. He sees children, adults, and families for therapy, parenting advice, and evaluations.