Shabbat TeShuvah: Jewish guilt

Sin is never as tantalizing after the fact as it is before the fact.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow ,

Right way, wrong way, Torah way
Right way, wrong way, Torah way
iStock

Have you ever heard of Jewish guilt? Well, of course. If you have a Jewish mother, you know about Jewish guilt. But the truth is that Jews have little to do with guilt. In fact, the Catholics claim to have cornered the market on guilt. Considering the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin—humans are inclined to sin from birth, they are probably right.

Yet, we talk much about Jewish guilt. The myth is that Jewish mothers specialize in using guilt to manipulate their children into doing their bidding. It is a myth. Jews don’t believe in inherent guilt. Jews believe in inherent innocence. We are born innocent, and only grow guilty when we have done something to feel guilty about.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that when we do something wrong, we feel guilty. You have to wonder about that. For example, if someone offended you and you took revenge, you knew it was wrong before you did it. But you did it anyway, knowing it was wrong. You did it because you wanted to do it. So why do you feel bad after you did it, what changed?

Suppose you steal your friend’s pen because you liked it so much. You knew it was wrong before you stole it, yet you wanted it so badly that you overlooked the impropriety. After you stole it and it is sitting on your desk, you feel guilty every time you look at it. You even consider sneaking back into your friend’s house and dropping it off. Why don’t you want it anymore, what changed?

The Yetzer Hara


To understand why we feel guilty we first need to understand why we feel tempted in the first place. If we are born pure and innocent, how do we develop a desire for sin?

The answer is that G-d implanted two inclinations of equal force within us. They are the yetzer hara and yetzer tov—the inclination to behave badly and the inclination to behave well. These two forces play upon us with equal force, each pulling in a different direction. At times, one inclination is stronger and at times the other inclination is stronger, but at no time are we compelled to obey either. We have free choice and can exercise it any anytime.

Now the yetzer hara, the inclination to behave badly, is responsible for all our sinful temptations. If we are tempted to exact revenge or to steal, it is stimulated by the yetzer hara. It is the task of the yetzer hara to dress up every opportunity for sin in the most alluring bunting. When we feel desperate for a treat that isn’t kosher, the idea was implanted in us by the yetzer hara.

The yetzer hara, however, is in a real bind. You see, it too serves at G-d’s pleasure. It is not G-d’s opponent, it is G-d’s servant. G-d implanted the yetzer hara in us, not so that we would sin but so that we would be tempted to sin. When we are tempted to sin, and find the fortitude to resist the temptation, our reward is abundant.

You see, serving G-d when that is our only interest, is not a huge achievement. Serving G-d when we would rather be somewhere else, is a huge achievement. It means that we chose G-d over other alluring options. And this earns us (and the yetzer hara) a true and lasting reward.

So, the yetzer hara is in a real quandary. To fulfill its divinely ordained mission it must be a truly effective temptress. It must utilize its bountiful resources to lure us in. If it goes easy on us, it will have failed its task. G-d wants it to be persuasive because the more compelling the temptation, the more difficult it is to resist it, and the more magnificent will be the reward.

But if it does its job too well, it might in fact be successful and that, the yetzer hara doesn’t want. As G-d’s loyal servant, the yetzer hara wants us to overcome its wiles so that G-d can get what G-d wants—a servant who overcame temptation and chose G-d. Moreover, if we resist the temptation, the yetzer hara is rewarded. If we succumb, the yetzer hara is punished.

Jewish Guilt


This answers our earlier question about why we feel guilty after committing a sin even though we were so desirous of it before we committed it.

When we succumb to the yetzer hara and commit a sin, no one is more disappointed in us than the yetzer hara. The very agent that urged us to sin is disappointed that we obeyed it. It is also disappointed in itself; it is a victim of its own success. It wishes that it would have been less persuasive, less capable, less imposing.

That instant sense of regret that we feel once we commit a sin, is the regret registered by our yetzer hara.

This explains our Jewish guilt after the fact and our desire for sin before the fact. Before the fact, we wanted the sin and insisted on it because the yetzer hara filled our minds with alluring visions of pleasure and gratification. But the moment we succumbed, the yetzer hara was crushed and disappointed with itself. Naturally, it stops filling our minds with sinful thoughts at this time because it is chagrined over its success.

The moment the yetzer hara stops filling our minds with the allure of sin, we are naturally beset by Jewish guilt. We can’t believe that we transgressed G-d’s will. And our yetzer hara can’t believe it either. It thought we were better. If it had known our limitations, it might not have pushed as hard. It is now remorseful over its own success, and we feel it too.

The Moral


This teaches us that sin is never as tantalizing after the fact as it is before the fact. When our minds fill with visions of titillating pleasure and grandeur, we must remember that these visions are just a mirage. They are lies designed only to provoke temptation. But these promises of fulfillment and pleasure are hollow and empty.

After the fact, we will know that we had no business believing in these promises that are made by a yetzer hara that itself doesn’t believe them and hopes we will ignore them. If we can remember before the fact how we will feel after the fact, it will be easier to resist the temptation and overcome the yetzer hara.

Not only will G-d be proud of us, not only will we be proud of ourselves, our yetzer hara will be proudest and happiest of all.

Shanah Tovah

Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.



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