Yom Kippur should be a day of building ourselves up, not beating ourselves down with guilt and shame. It should be a day of empowerment, not a day of feeling like a loser for all the mistakes we’ve made. Here are five ideas to keep in mind on Yom Kippur to ensure that you’re building yourself up.
1. To Err is to be Human
Actually the list of transgressions should be called a list of mistakes. The Hebrew word for “sin”, chait, means to miss the mark or to make a mistake. Does a parent want their child to beat themselves up every time they make a mistake? Of course not. A loving parent wants their child to take responsibility for his or her mistakes and try to improve. We’re not bad because we make mistakes, we’re just human. God doesn’t expect perfection. In fact, God gave us the commandment of teshuvah (to improve ourselves) knowing we’re going to fail and fail often! So don’t be so hard on yourself.
2. Experience the Thrill of Self-Mastery
Try seeing the list of mistakes we recite during Yom Kippur as giving you a picture of how great a human being can be. Underlying each mistake is an ideal for self-improvement. Imagine how the quality of your life would improve if you’d master even one of these mistakes. For example, one of the mistakes on the list is gossip. Imagine achieving such mastery that you never spoke negatively about another person ever again. Just think how much good you could bring into the world and how much destructive energy would be eradicated. Imagine achieving mastery over all these mistakes. Now you have a picture of what a great human being looks like.
3. Experience More Joy in Living
In the High Holiday prayers we repeat that “He is the King who desires life.” Like a loving parent, God wants us to live great lives and to enjoy the privilege of being alive. Mistakes rob us of pleasure in living. For example, one of the mistakes on the list is “abusing food.” When we overeat, become overweight, get out of shape and eat junk, we feel a loss of energy, vitality and pleasure in living. God wants us to correct our mistakes because He knows that each mistake diminishes our pleasure in living. He wants us to improve the quality of our lives. As you go through the list see how each mistake you make negatively impacts the quality of your life.
4. Experience the Pleasure of Self-Discovery
Identify one issue on the list you struggle with most, one you keep making over and over. Instead of beating yourself up over it, try becoming more curious about it. Why is this issue particularly difficult for you? Explore the history of this struggle. When did it first begin? What’s your earliest memory of struggling with this issue? Does the memory give you any deeper insight into the meaning of it? What payoff do you mistakenly think you’re going to receive by doing this transgression? Don’t give up hope. God gives each of us unique struggles. As overwhelming and frightening they may be, it is important to embrace them and not run away from them. Keep in mind that our greatest struggle is often our greatest opportunity for personal transformation.
5. Embrace the Process
We went through the same list last year and we’ll go through the same list next year. This demonstrates that life is a process. There’s no winner’s circle to get to. Those who see life in terms of success or failure, live with constant pressure and disappointment. Yom Kippur teaches us that there is no ultimate finish line in life. There is only the process of making our best effort to improve year after year. Enjoy the journey. Sometimes you’ll succeed and sometimes you’ll fail. God doesn’t judge us by how much we succeed. He judges us by how consistently we show up and try to actualize our unique potential. As the Rabbis say, “You are not expected to finish the job, yet you are not free from trying your best.”
This year when we “beat” our chests as we enumerate our mistakes, let’s make sure to have an experience of “building ourselves up” and not one of “beating ourselves up.” Instead of ripping ourselves apart, this year, let’s make Yom Kippur an experience of personal empowerment and growth.