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Forgiving Ourselves on Yom Kippur

How can we gather the courage to confront ourselves honestly and compassionately so that we can somehow realize a fresh start?

Yom Kippur is an opportunity to begin anew. In preparing for this high point on the Jewish calendar, we are instructed to take a “soul inventory,” first examining how we’ve treated others, and then looking inside at our behavior toward ourselves. If we have offended someone else, Jewish tradition requires us to ask for forgiveness, and, indeed, forgiving and being forgiven can truly heal both people and the relationship. Though admitting to wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness from others might be difficult, the task of looking at how we treat ourselves can be even more daunting and scary.

As a clinical psychologist and therapist, I’ve spent many hours thinking about this question: how do we genuinely forgive ourselves for what I will call self-injurious behaviors – perfectionism, excesses of food and drink, anxiety and the like? These tendencies feel so ingrained, and so resistant to change. Yet, if we are created “b’tzelem Elohim” – in the Divine image, then if we don’t take good care of ourselves, it follows that we are damaging the Divine. How can we gather the courage to confront ourselves honestly and compassionately so that we can somehow realize a fresh start?

I believe that one key can be found in accepting the idea that we are imperfect by nature and are born into circumstances beyond our control. We can only control our own behavior, and are in a continuous struggle between the yetzer ha’tov and the yetzer ha’ra – our good and bad impulses. Compound this with the influences of our families, which impact us in both good and not-so-good ways, and some of the behaviors that result can be self-injurious.

On Yom Kippur, our liturgy includes the Yizkor service of remembrance during which we recall our relationships with those who have passed on. It’s a perfect time to think more deeply about our parents in particular, and perhaps our grandparents as well, because our capacity for forgiving ourselves can be inextricably bound to what we learned from them. In other words, if we are to forgive ourselves, we also must forgive them for what they may have passed on to us. If we can forgive them, we can also forgive ourselves. We can accept ourselves as we are – with all of our human foibles and faults. Rather than avoiding who we are, accepting ourselves helps us face our fears of not being good enough and gives us strength to try to be better.

When we engage in self-destructive behaviors, e.g., eating or drinking too much or acting out in some way, it is often in reaction to an inner experience of shame or emotional pain and a desire to avoid feeling it or to cover it over. Unfortunately, this has the opposite effect and usually produces more pain and shame. When we can gather the courage to acknowledge and face our pain, we then have the opportunity to accept ourselves and our lives as they are and to make peace with ourselves.

The High Holy Day period offers us a chance to wake up to who we are and to take responsibility for ourselves. Let the closing of the gates this Yom Kippur mark the beginning of a new level of self-compassion and self-acceptance leading toward facing our fears and giving us the strength to try to be the best that we can be: truly Divine creations. But rather than viewing this as an annual event, maybe it’s really a daily undertaking, with each small step in self-awareness a milestone along life’s path.

Lisa Braun Glazer deeply believes that our lives and our world can be infinitely enriched by the wisdom and beauty contained in Jewish ritual and thought.

Her Jewish education began at a Conservadox synagogue in the Midwest and then picked up again when she was 40. She studied Hebrew for two years at UCSD, participated in the Union for Reform Judaism summer program at UC Santa Cruz for 10 years and completed the intensive 18-month Kivvun program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. At her synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel of San Diego, Lisa started Tashlich, was a founder of the lay-led Shabbat morning minyan service, and started three-generation participatory family High Holy Day services and edited its machzor. Lisa served on the North American Board of the URJ for eight years, including co-chairing a tri-partite commission on rabbinic burnout.

Lisa is a licensed clinical psychologist. Now retired, she practiced in La Jolla, Ca., for over 30 years and taught at the UCSD School of Medicine. She lives in La Jolla with her husband of 40 years, and has two married daughters and five adorable little grandchildren.

She has been actively engaged as an artist for most of her adult life. Lisa loves doing Hebrew calligraphy and works primarily in the medium of clay. She loves to swim, ski and travel. She currently serves as a trustee of the Institute for Shipboard Education which runs the Semester at Sea program, and devotes her volunteer efforts and philanthropy to saving the big mikveh – the ocean, which sustains all life.

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