A reader writes:
It's hard for me to differentiate between guilt and self-improvement. I feel this especially now. There are three people in the immediate community who are seriously ill. The news is frightening. There are a few small things I have changed recently but they seem minor. I sometimes feel guilty about feeling happy with my family and security when others don't have this. Also does working on controlling anger count if after ten calm days one explode?
Rebbetzin Faige responds:
There is a great difference between conventional guilt and the Jewish concept of guilt. Conventional guilt keeps one enmeshed in the past, wallowing and repeatedly obsessing about past wrongdoing and misdeeds. It leaves us feeling unworthy and unredeemable.
To err is human and no experience in life is a failure if we learn from it and are modified by it.
In contrast, Jewish guilt means regretfully admitting inappropriate behavior and moving on to assimilate and integrate the insights gained into subsequent living. It is present and future oriented. It maintains that to err is human and no experience in life is a failure if we learn from it and are modified by it.
Your sensitivity to the necessity for personal contributions to the troubling events of our times are right on target. We all desperately seek relief from the terrible darkness that surrounds us, both collectively and individually. It mandates that each of us light a candle, in our own way, given our unique resources and individual circumstances. Each of us has to assume responsibility for the change that we want to see.
Historically, we read of Elimelech, a wealthy leader of the Jewish people, chronicled in the book of Ruth. At a time of his people's suffering and travail, he chose to separate out and abandon them. Erroneously, he assumed that since the calamity had not affected him directly, he was free of responsibility for his fellow people. He paid with his life for this reprehensible attitude.
The loudest sound in the universe is that of a person breaking old behavioral patterns and putting constructive ones in their place.
You have correctly identified a most critical area of contribution -- the work we need to do in the inner landscape of our person. Working and affecting change internally on our character attributes and attitudes towards life is the most productive approach to creating a better world. Precisely because it is unquestionably the most difficult battlefront. To confront our shortcomings and proceed to put forth the requisite toil to achieve personal change and growth is what the very Heavens stand in awe of. Rabbi Yisroel of Salant commented that the loudest sound in the universe is that of a person breaking old behavioral patterns and putting constructive ones in their place. Every time we wish to respond in the predictable, unacceptable mode of old, whether in anger, pride, selfishness or excessive ego involvement, and by dint of exercising control and invoking the better part of ourselves we hold our tongue or modify our reaction accordingly, it is of ultimate value.
Your concern that this position of control cannot be maintained 100% of the time and hence the subsequent outbursts invalidate the success of your resolve is unwarranted. In all of growth there are relapses. We move up a number of steps and then predictably regress a notch or two. This is the nature of human growth and should not discourage or dissuade us. We must persevere. Old patterns are not easily broken and every bit of effort exerted brings us closer to achieving the purpose and the reason that we were put on this earth. This is the case under all circumstances and most especially in our troubled times.
These are the best offerings that we can bring in an effort to promote healing and positive energy into the world. These are the loftiest expressions of self-sacrifice. As one of the commentaries notes, "to live with "Kiddush Hashem," sanctifying God's name is an even greater achievement than to die with "Kiddush Hashem.". A lifetime dedicated to self-transcendent indifference to the will of God surpasses the once in a lifetime transcendence of martyrdom. Not to die for God, but to set our will and impulse aside and to defer to His understanding of the behavior that is ultimately in our best interest.
Everything we are given in life, both the desirable and that which appears to be less desirable, are all part of Divine Providence and orchestration.
You write that under the circumstances you feel guilty about being happy with your family and security. It is important to understand that from a Torah perspective that everything we are given in life, both the desirable and that which appears to be less desirable, are all part of Divine Providence and orchestration. Having "good" things in life is not arbitrary or a product of "luck." It is all part of the "tailor made" context of our life, structured and prescribed by the Almighty as necessary for the unique challenges that we must deal with.
The challenge of adversity demands a perspective of courage and strength. The challenge of "good" demands a perspective of sharing, appreciation, and abiding gratitude. To sustain an attitude of feeling blessed is not an easy matter. Human beings generally focus not on what we have but what we would like to have. To enjoy security and family is not only appropriate -- it is imperative. Our sages teach us that one of the reasons we recite blessings throughout the day is to make us conscious of the Godly beneficence that surrounds us -- food, clothing, fragrant flowers in bloom, milestones, holidays, and even life itself, as we recite the "modeh ani" blessing at the dawning of each new day of existence that we are favored with. These are all gifts for our enjoyment. As a matter of fact, we are told that after our mortal existence we will have to answer for the legitimate joys in life that were available to us and we did not partake of.
Guilt is not a legitimate response to blessing. Redoubling our efforts to share our resources, gladden the hearts of others, to be a source of enveloping light and maintaining a positive stance for our family, are the constructive and productive expressions of gratitude for the gifts granted and blessing rendered that the Almighty would like to see.
In the merit of the sincere quest to do what is right as you articulated so well, may God grant all of us the ultimate light that will illuminate our lives, individually and the world as a whole.