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Freaked Out About Yom Kippur

*This post was originally published as a column in the Five Towns Jewish Times.*

Dear Elisheva,

My problem is on a low simmer most of the time, but Yom Kippur time it always explodes. I know that I have an intense personality. I’ve always taken my religious life very seriously- even though I may not seem like the frummest person out there from the outside. But internally, I think a lot about right and wrong, mitzvahs and averos, and reward and punishment. I always feel really bad when I do things I believe to be wrong- and I’m not talking about terrible things like hurting people or stealing; thankfully those aren’t my struggles. I mean very tiny details of the Shabbos laws or saying something that might be lashon hara.

It’s been this way since high school, and I’m in my late 20s at this point. Most of the time, I manage my feelings ok. I have a wonderful marriage, great friends, a good job, and a healthy toddler. I’m mostly a happy, functional person, but I struggle with some anxiety. I see a therapist who helps me manage it, and I take some medication that keeps it at bay. But on Yom Kippur, my anxiety goes crazy. I find myself bawling into my machzor- and it’s not sweet and holy; it’s frantic and embarrassing. I feel like I’m clawing on for dear life. By the middle of the day, I’m spent. By the end, I’m angry at everything.

Already in anticipation, I find myself feeling mounting dread, over this huge sense of obligation and responsibility. I’m so terrified of G-d and of doing the wrong thing. Of getting written in the book of bad mazal this year- like something terrible could happen if I say or do the wrong thing. I feel totally freaked out by what I feel is expected of me to be a good Jew. It’s like I just want to run away from everything- life just feels like too much. Like I want to tell G-d: “If this is how overwhelming and scary living a Torah-correct life is, why am I supposed to pray so hard for more of it? Why should I even want to?”

I don’t harm myself, and it’s not that I don’t want to live, most of the time. It’s that when I’m in the Yom Kippur mindset, life just feels like too much, especially when I think of it as this huge list of dos and don’t “or else.” Then of course I feel ungrateful and guilty for thinking these terrible thoughts when G-d has actually been pretty good to me in my life so far. But I just keep waiting for bad things to happen- I know I sin sometimes, and other, better people than me have tragedies and challenges.

I speak to my therapist about this, and she gives me some suggestions which sometimes help. But she’s not Jewish so I’m hoping to get some thoughts about these feelings from a religious therapist who believes in the same G-d and Torah as I do, and understands more about why I feel this way.

Thanks in advance,

Freaked out

Dear Freaked Out,

Thank you for sharing this. I want you to know that you’re so not alone in this. You sound like an incredibly sincere and heartfelt peson, and your anxiety stems from a noble place. But we all know about too much of a good thing, right?

I’m glad you work with a therapist to manage these feelings, and that most of the year, the therapy and medication help you with your mental wellness. I’m not your therapist nor a Rabbi, but as you ask for a Jewish therapeutic perspective, I will try in my answer to honor both those angles.

Your description of your feelings reminds me of someone else I’ve heard of, who also felt freaked out from what he felt G-d was asking of him. So much so that he also ran away- literally. His name was Jonah. He was actually a prophet, and we read his story in shul on Yom Kippur. G-d gave him one job. Just go talk to some people and relay a message. And he panicked. He bought a ticket, jumped ship, and tried to get as far away as he could. From a mission that G-d Himself assigned him personally.

He went through a number of trials and tribulations, suffering and worrying, until at one point ended up saying, and I quote: “Please, G-d- just take my soul; my death would be better than my life.”

He’d basically lost his will to live; he was so overwhelmed by this responsibility and his relationship to G-d. But did he get struck down by lightning and die? No. Did he go to hell? No. What happened to him? G-d kept communicating with him, instructing him, teaching him, moving him toward his mission. And then, he was canonized. Published into the 24 books of Tanach to be read aloud and studied on the holiest day of the year.

Jonah is not the only great Biblical personality who questions the point of life and G-d’s demands on him. On Sukkos, which is called "time of our joy" we read Kohelet, in which King Shlomo says: "I hate life" - existential angst is often part and parcel of being a person who things critically and takes life seriously. This is validated. But it needs to be tempered with gentleness, to make space for love and joy. The Torah is full of incredibly holy, great people who fail and fear and fight and fall. Their flaws are publicized for us to read and study and learn from. Because this is the lesson of being human.

Courage doesn’t mean having no fear.

Greatness doesn’t mean making no mistakes.

Spiritually doesn’t mean having no body.

Reverence doesn’t mean having no serenity.

Righteousness doesn’t mean having no sins.

You know what else we read about in shul on Yom Kippur? Arayos. The forbidden sexual relationships. On the holiest day of the year. Why? Maybe because part of being human is to struggle- with big and small temptations and fears and transgression. We own that, and we’re not pretending to be otherwise. (Fasting and white clothing notwithstanding.)

Regarding your fear that one false step will sabotage your mazal for the year, I would point out that in this world we see basically zero correlation between how righteous someone is and how much visible blessing they receive, or the reverse. It actually says this in Ethics of the Fathers- we don't know how G-d calculates things like the virtuous who suffer and the evil who prosper.

Yes, we're meant to pray for blessing, but we have little idea about the mechanics of how that actually works. it's more about finding expression for what we crave and feel, and nurturing a relationship with our Creator by sharing it.

I say this not to scare you into feeling that everything is random and nothing matters. But to remind you that all we can do is our reasonable best, and that no matter how crazy we drive ourselves, we can't control everything.

Our concepts of and feelings about G-d are relationships, and like any other relationships, can be evaluated and improved to become healthier. If your way of relating to G-d feels too skewed towards "yirah," reverence, so much so that it feels like excessive worry, anger, and avoidance, then maybe you could try to shift more towards focussing on the idea of G-d as "HaRachaman"- the compassionate one.

In any relationship that matters and is healthy, it's helpful to try for what Dr. John Gottman calls "positive sentiment override." Most relationships have some yirah, reverence, and some ahava- love. For example, it's worthy to be faithful to our spouses primary out of love and devotion to them, but also because we don't want to hurt them or the integrity of our relationships. We care for our childen not only because we don't want any harm to befall them, but also because we love them and want to help them thrive.

If the only reason we practice religion is because we're afraid of G-d's wrath, then we are losing out on the primary benefits of what a relationship with G-d can offer. No wonder you feel burned out and terrified. Viewing G-d as a sadistic, totalitarian dictator who is just waiting for us to mess up so He can punish us, will of course make you feel trapped and hopeless.

I'm so sorry if you were taught things that gave you this impression. Yes, there is an element of responsibility and accountability that comes with free will, and that's consequential. But the essential purpose of life according to many Torah philosophers is to achieve spiritual pleasure through a connection to G-d and the world and our own sense of purpose. Pleasure, joy, love, connection- not exclusively, but predominantly.

Yom Kippur is not about tearing ourselves down to the point of self-destruction or paralyzing panic. It's about facing reality about who we are and who we want to be. About standing in front of a spiritual mirror, showing up, with all our warts and flaws and divinity, and saying: "Yes, I don't always act in alignment with what I believe. But I'm still here, and I want to repair and heal. I want to view myself as full of potential, and set intentions for the upcoming year. Because there's always room to keep growing and evolving into our best selves."

Maya Angelou is quoted as having said: "Do the best you can, until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better." Not because we're terrible as we are. But because change is inevitable, so we may as well try and change for the better.

In the morning blessings, we introduce our engagement with Torah with the words: "v'haarev na-" asking G-d to make Torah feel sweet, in us and in our children.

When we take the Torah out of the ark we sing about how "her ways are pleasant, and all her paths are peace."

Before Shmoneh esre, we say the blessing of Ahava raba, mcuh love, and the prayer of Shma and v'ahavta. There needs to be a focus on this sweetness, pleasantness and love, if this is to be a healthy, sustainable relationship.

This is not a newfangled progressive idea; it's built into the siddur itself, based on verses from the Torah and other primary sources. I see our communities doing teshuva in this area- trying to focus more on the joy and sweetness of Torah and Judaism in Jewish education. Perhaps it would be helpful for you to seek out reading or viewing materials that focus on this approach to Jewish ideology, so that you don't feel as consumed with fear, and can shift gently towards a sense of hope, empowerment, and renewal.

Wishing you and your family a shana tova in all ways- filled with all kinds of blessing that you can feel and enjoy.

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