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Guilt Over Past Sins

I committed some sins when I was young and not yet religious which were very serious, and carry the punishment of karet (excision). Although I fully regret my past actions, I am still haunted by my past sins. I heard that karet is one of the most serious punishments – shortening a person’s life and cutting him off from the World to Come. At the time, I knew such acts are forbidden but had no idea how serious they are. Today I’m very scared and depressed – that I won’t be forgiven without suffering. What can I do about this?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

I’m sorry this is such an upset for you. But I’m happy to write you that your fears and worries are really not warranted. Although it is important that we repent our past sins, that should really be an uplifting and purifying experience, one which enables us to move on from our past mistakes and face life anew.

The great medieval ethicist Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (Sha’arei Teshuva 4:21) writes that just as a person must confess his sins, it is equally critical that he stop confessing his sins and put them out of his mind afterwards. We must – in fact we are obligated to – believe that repentance is effective and cleanses us of our past sins. Continuing to feel weighted down by sin after proper repentance demonstrates a lack of belief in God and His goodness – in fulfilling His promise to fully forgive the penitent. Secondly, he explains, dwelling on our past could easily draw away our focus from our current shortcomings – which are what we must direct our attention to today.

(Rabbeinu Yonah’s ruling follows one opinion in the Talmud (Yoma 86b). There is a second opinion there that it is praiseworthy to repent even over sins which we have repented over already. The idea, however, seems to be that this will cause a person to grow further in his understanding of the evil of sin and put his past even further behind him. See this class I wrote on the topic.)

Teshuva (repentance) is an incredible gift from God, allowing us to entirely disassociate ourselves from our past mistakes. Once we fully and wholeheartedly repent, our sin is no longer a part of us. It is as if we never did it. And so, we no longer have to feel a heavy sense of guilt and foreboding – that we have God’s anger weighing on us and that His justice is bound to strike. Once we have repented, we are whole again and can look forward to living our lives reconnected with God, unencumbered by our past mistakes. God loves us again today as much as He did before we sinned – and possibly even more. (See Talmud Brachos 34b: “The place that repenters stand [in proximity to God in the World to Come], the fully righteous do not stand.”) And so, we can move on in life with a positive sense of freshness and renewal.

Even more relevant to you is that the serious punishments you are concerned about really only apply to someone who fully knew how severe his sin was but did it anyway. If you weren’t religious when you sinned, then it’s clear that you did not fully appreciate the significance of your actions – even if you had some knowledge of what the Torah permits and forbids. There is no question that such severe punishments as karet would have no relevance to you. Thus again, for you your main thrust should be to fully regret and repent your past sins – and then to put them behind you as if they had never occurred. Teshuva is really a positive, uplifting experience, and once you have done it you can feel a sense of invigoration, and look positively to your future.

I should add that teshuva is not just a matter of regretting your past deeds in your heart. There is a more formal process to it of verbally admitting to your sin, regretting it, and committing for the future to be better. See this article for more details.

I wish you a very bright future!

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