People generally think their sins are committed against others and ask for forgiveness. This forgiveness does not always enable one to forgive themselves. How does one deal with forgiveness of yourself? And the guilt that may come along with doing or not doing that?
When we sin, we hurt the aggrieved, we damage our relationship with God, and we hurt ourselves by our failure. For the first two, apologies and sincere penitence can accomplish forgiveness, but the stain or damage of sin may still be there, and may take years to fully erase. There is a tradition that the verse ve-hatati negdi tamid, my sin is before me always, should apply to each of us, keeping our failures of the past in our memory throughout our lives. According to some opinions, each Yom Kippur, as we articulate our sins, we should include even those sins for which we have already repented and atoned in previous years, even if we did not fall back into that sin.
On the other hand, the power of teshuvah, repentance, is huge and should not be minimized. When we repent (and, for sins towards others, sincerely apologize and secure forgiveness), the sin is no longer an active evil, it is a part of our past that needs to be atoned and rehabilitated. That can take days, months, or years, depending on the sin. The question is not so much how to forgive oneself as how to absorb this sin into the picture of who we each of us are, and become comfortable with that picture. If I am a person who has committed x sin, I am such a person, and there is nothing I can do to get rid of that past. What I can do is change myself from that person, and even, occasionally, use that sin to help improve who I am.
So, to take an example: if I was a drug addict and sinned because of it (stole, or worse), when I come to my senses, get clean, and never go back to those drugs, it will never change what I did. But if I really stay off that path, and become an upstanding citizen and Jew, I can, over time, allow myself the forgiveness that God promises me, in the recognition that we all sin, and it is not the sin that is determinant, it is how we react to it that is.
If that sin stays with me such that I am more careful about myself in the future, or that I help others avoid the mistakes or crimes I made or committed, that might even qualify as what is called repentance out of love, a wholehearted commitment to returning to God fully. And if we do that, we are guaranteed that that past will no longer be a stain, might even be a credit.
The more we can absorb the reality of this complicated process-- a sin with a base level of atonement, followed by constant work and memory fueling our continuous awareness of the need to avoid repeating that-- the more, I think, we can feel comfortable again with ourselves, knowing that no matter how evil the crime we committed, the God Who made us is prepared to welcome us back if only we try. And if God will take us back, who are we not to take ourselves back?
I always felt that it was to our benefit that on Yom Kippur God judges us, rather than each person judging him or herself. Ultimately, God is much more merciful and understanding of our individual shortcomings than each of us would be.
In dealing with self-forgiveness and guilt, one must ask if the apology was from the heart and not just from the mouth. Words can come easily, but a heart felt apology, true teshuvah, repentance, is much more difficult and elusive. If someone cannot forgive him or herself, perhaps the act of repentance was not heartfelt.
Even with heartfelt repentance, forgiving oneself is often much harder that seeking and attaining forgiveness from another, let alone, forgiving someone else for his or her sin. Our Torah recognizes the difficulty in letting go of guilt. The book of Leviticus proscribes offerings that were brought to the sanctuary to atone for sin and to alleviate guilt. We no longer sacrifice on the altar, but in an often cited teaching (The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan 4:5), Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai responded to his disciple that acts of loving-kindness (gemilut hasadim) come to replace the sacrifices and are an equally meritorious way of achieving atonement.
Atonement is not achieved only through word, but it needs to be accompanied by action as well. Tzedakah, Acts of righteousness and loving-kindness are essential to the process of atonement and self-forgiveness. Giving charity, helping those in need, and volunteering are part of the reparation process. If we cannot always take back our actions or payback for our sins, than at least we can “pay it forward.”
Final atonement and the alleviation of guilt may take longer. Rambam, Maimonides, teaches that full atonement is not achieved until we are faced with a similar situation and are able to act differently.
Let me start by talking about the term you used; “sin”. I believe this is a misnomer, which misleads people. Sin seems to be used more in a non-Jewish context.
I would suggest that from a Jewish perspective, or a Reform Jewish perspective at least, there are two kinds of behavior that are sometimes lumped in as ‘sin’.
(1) Errors in judgment or other lapses in our behavior that can negatively affect others and/or ourselves, and,
(2) Outright Moral failings that might properly be called Transgressions or Trespasses, each of which injure/affect three parties: ourselves, other people, and (it is thought) G-d.
I would say that most of the time, we are talking about the first kind. This is referenced in the Yom Kippur liturgy as ‘missing the mark.’ Reasons for this sort of failing might be when we don’t do our best, we simply don’t pay attention, we forget, or when we fall short of what we can/should do. This action (or inaction) may not affect anyone else, so we may be the only one injured; or it may be the case that this injures someone else as well. In either case, it is a disappointment and should serve as a spur to try harder.
When we talk about missing the mark, we are not usually describing a grievous criminal act or a major moral failing; overeating, forgetting someone’s birthday, misplacing trust in someone, being late again; these are all in this category. It is difficult for me to see any of them as an affront to G-d, so the use of the term ‘sin’ seems quite inappropriate. We should seek to rectify these failures, and to ameliorate whatever damage we may have done to others, but it does not strike me as what would be a ‘sin’.
The second kind of failing seems more serious. A transgression or trespass could be when we aren’t careful or don’t think about what we say, and we enjoy a bit of gossip about a friend that gets spread around, eventually gets back to them, and causes them injury or hurt. In this instance, we see three parties injured; the person who gossiped, the person who listened, and the person who was gossiped about. In this, we might also hold the view that G-d is affected and offended as well, because we have transgressed one of the guidelines for living a good, moral, and godly life by gossiping, and our action has upset the order of the world around us – injuring G-d’s creation. This is indeed a failing that requires we do all we can to rectify it; but even so, this does not seem to me to rise to the level of a ‘sin’ as it is commonly understood.
A sin, it would seem to me, would be a direct affront to G-d. Not too many things other than murder, worship of idols, or defaming G-d’s name seem to fall in this category, as I think about rabbinic writings. And for these, there is no practical forgiveness; the murdered person cannot forgive, and G-d is not obliged to offer forgiveness when one has rejected G-d by the very action that violates G-d’s guidelines/commandments and offends G-d. In my mind, then, a ‘sin’ is not forgivable – and we should be very cautious about using this term.
Back to your question. When we miss the mark or transgress, we must perform Teshuvah (Repentance), which includes recognizing our failure, asking forgiveness from those affected, making restitution where possible, avoiding the same action in future, and seeking forgiveness from G-d. This is the process we are encouraged to follow for Yom Kippur.
As you see, it doesn’t say seeking forgiveness from yourself, which is the heart of your question. I would suggest that this is implicit in the procedure set out. Before you can ask forgiveness (from others or from G-d), I would say that you must feel that you are ready for it, and deserving of it. To arrive at that point, you must find the means to forgive yourself before, or simultaneously when asking others.
I would also argue that after fulfilling the process outlined, if one finds that they feel guilty or undeserving of forgiveness, it is because they are re-visiting the transgression and re-imposing the guilt, instead of letting it go and being done with it. Another way to say this might be to say that they are second-guessing themselves and the process (effectively, discounting the other people and G-d) by which they were forgiven, perhaps feeling it was not harsh enough. In American jurisprudence, we would call this ‘double jeopardy’ – being prosecuted more than once for the same crime; and it is forbidden. So should it be in this arena as well.
Even worse, as you imply in your final question, some refuse to forgive themselves, and then feel guilty for not forgiving. This is a complete catch-22 position; it is insoluble. In no way can I imagine that this would be the desired outcome from the system outlined. Neither would I imagine G-d creating this as the way the world should work, even in the most capricious and arbitrary behaviors that are attributed to G-d in the Hebrew scriptures or stories, nor would I imagine that G-d would wish for such an unfair and disastrous outcome to a transgression.
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