“Dear Rabbi, I used to think my entire life was run by my feelings of guilt. Everything I did or thought seemed to be governed by how guilty I felt that day. It also didn’t seem to matter what ‘it’ was. I’d be feeling guilty about everything and anything … either that I hadn’t done enough or that I’d upset people when I hadn’t meant to or even that I ‘should’ have done something differently. I’d feel guilty about so many things and my life really did seem to be just reacting to one feeling of guilt after another”.
Dear friends, we all suffer from guilt, some more than others. The question is what we do with it …
After his wife died, an old religious man received a parrot from his sons to keep him company. After a time, he discovered that the parrot had heard him pray so often that it learned to say the prayers. The old man was so thrilled he decided to take his parrot to the synagogue on the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah.
The rabbi protested when he entered with the bird, but when told the parrot could pray, the rabbi, though still skeptical, showed interest. People started betting on whether the parrot would pray, and the old man happily took bets that eventually totaled $50,000.
The prayers began but the bird was silent. As the prayers continued there was still not a word from the bird.
When the prayers ended, the old man was not only crestfallen, but also $50,000 in debt. On the way home he thundered at his parrot, “Why did you do this to me? I know you can pray, you know you can pray. Why did you keep your mouth shut? Do you know how much money I owe people now?”
To which the parrot replied: “A little business imagination would help you, dear friend. You must look ahead: Can you imagine what the stakes will be like on Yom Kippur?” Double compensation.
Exodus 22:7 “If a man shall give money or vessels to his fellow to safeguard, and it is stolen from the house of the man, if the thief is found, he shall pay double.” Go out, suggests the Torah, and find the thief. Then you will actually receive double of what you possessed originally!
Here we are introduced, in subtle fashion, to the exquisite dynamic known in Judaism as teshuvah – repentance, or psychological and moral recovery. Instead of wallowing in your guilt and despair, and instead of surrendering to apathy and cynicism, you ought to identify and confront your “thief”, those forces within your life that keep derailing you. You need to reclaim ownership over your schedules, behaviors and patterns.
Then, you will receive from the thief double the amount he took in the first place. What this means psychologically is that the experience of falling and rebounding will allow you to deepen your spirituality and dignity in a fashion double of what it might have been without the thievery.
The Talmud puts it thus: “Great is repentance, for as a result of it, willful sins are transformed into virtues.”
When you fail and allow your life to fall into a shambles, but then confront the thief and reclaim your life as your own, those previous failures bestow on you a perspective, an appreciation, a depth and a determination that otherwise would not have been possible. By engaging in the remarkable endeavor of repentance, the sin itself is redefined as a mitzvah – a good deed. Why? Because the very failure and its resulting frustration generate a profound and authentic passion and appreciation for the good and the holy.
The next time your inner thief hijacks your moral life, see it as a reclamation opportunity: Reclaim your life with a double dose of light and purity.
Rabbi Tzvi Dechter is the Director of Chabad of North Broward Beaches. (Moving to new location… coming soon!) For all upcoming events please visit www.JewishLHP.com.