With my wife’s periodic recommendation, when I finally agreed to go to weekly Torah study at Congregation Shalom some years back, I was surprised to find how sophisticated it was psychologically. That same finding holds true for our annual Jewish holidays.
The High Holy Days begin with Rosh Hashanah, when a Jew is supposed to ask for forgiveness. For sins against God, one can pray and ask for forgiveness from God and promise to change one’s ways, to turn for the better. However, for sins against other people, one is supposed to personally ask them for forgiveness. This recommendation for forgiveness implicitly recognizes how hard it is to ask for forgiveness, or to give it. Our model in the Torah may be Joseph, possibly the prototype of a modern psychiatrist, who was able to forgive the brothers who threw him into a pit, but only after he personally guided a process where he could see that they had changed for the better.
Also important is that we ask for forgiveness as a community, as in our public confession of “we have sinned,” including for sins we didn’t know we did. Doing so as part of a community is helpful because shame is so often an obstacle to ask for forgiveness. Shame is that public feeling we get for sensing the gap between who you are and who you strive to be. The psychiatric parallel to our communal confession has turned out to be the successful self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.
In psychiatry, forgiveness has only received a lot of attention in recent years. Research has now clearly shown that asking for – and giving – forgiveness is good for one’s health and mental health, let alone the improvement in relationships. Often, forgiveness of a perpetrator can be the last step in recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder, and may be the first step in preventing it.
In addition, psychiatry and psychotherapy has added the need to forgive oneself if one is overly self-critical and plagued with excessive guilt. This is repairing a relationship with oneself.
Most of us may recognize how important anniversaries are for psychological reasons. Sometimes they celebrate life, as in birthdays, and sometimes they trigger necessary grief, as in anniversaries of losses.
Holidays provide the same reminders, but often via a communal sense. At the memorial service on the long Yom Kippur day, we share our grief over the losses of loved ones, which in turn remind us of our own mortality. If fasting, one is also in a somewhat altered state of mind, which can be conducive to opening up to our unconscious fears.
The Book of Life
Woody Allen once said: “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Unless one is suicidal or desires euthanasia due to pain and terminal illness, everyone hopes to be put into the so-called Book of Life for the following year. The psychological wisdom about making death a yearly focus is that intermittent consideration of death is generally mentally more beneficial than denial of death or too much thinking about dying.
Judaism does not provide the psychological security of a clearly desired afterlife, but during the Ten Days of Repentance of the High Holy Days, we are said to have the chance to tip the scales of divine justice in our favor through repentance, prayer and doing good deeds. This self-transformation is not easy, but one can start during this time.
Talking about death often opens a window to resolving difficult interpersonal conflicts, including an opportunity for forgiveness. Perhaps at its best, by periodically confronting death, we may approximate what we hear about near-death experiences, for which the common after-effect is a renewed sense of purpose in life.
Days of Awe
An alternative name for the High Holy Days is the Days of Awe. In psychiatry, awe is often described as a sense of wonder in the presence of something vast that transcends our everyday reactions to the world. Recently, that sense of awe has been studied and, akin to forgiveness, is also beneficial. A sense of awe promotes altruism and loving-kindness, both essential Jewish ethical values.
I’ve felt a sense of awe in being allowed to write this article about our High Holy Days. Come to think about it, maybe some of the awe we experience is not only about life or death, but that we can – and sometimes do – change ourselves for the better. Let the traditional wisdom of our words, the healing power of our songs, and the penetrating calls of our shofar awaken us to this possibility. May it be so.
Steven Moffic, M.D., is an award-winning psychiatrist as a clinician, administrator, writer and artist, including receiving the one-time designation as a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the American Psychiatric Association. He is now retired from seeing patients. He and his wife Rusti are co-chairs of Tapestry, the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center’s arts and ideas programs.