The Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, call us to reckoning with ourselves:
Mah anu, meh hayyenu:
What are we? To what does our life amount?
To what do our love, our righteousness, our hope, add up?
We are required to be honest with ourselves, ‘to speak truth in our heart’.
However, just as we should be sincere, yet kind, to others, so we should be truthful, but not cruel, to ourselves.
There are people who have been so badly wounded, often in early childhood, often precisely by those who should have nurtured them and given them a sense of self-worth, that they feel haunted by self-contempt in places so deep inside that it is hard for love and understanding to reach them and heal their broken self-respect.
Our inner lives are in each other’s hands. We are the source of hurt and healing to one another. We owe it to each other and ourselves to be merciful as well as honest. Kindness and goodness are more likely to open our heart to remorse than accusation and contempt.
Judaism teaches us that God wants us to appreciate, value, bless and love life, including our own.
At the same time, this season of repentance summons us to unconditional integrity, to own up in our conscience to the wrongs we have done. This is not just because ‘God in heaven knows anyway’. It’s because the voice of truth, which we can hear if we listen without pretexts, and excuses, is God’s voice speaking in the sacred precincts of our heart and our mind.
In the end, we are not here to be right. Our aim in life is not to rationalise all our errors and justify the hurtful things we may have said and done. We are here to learn from life, to hollow out more fully the open spaces in our heart and try to become kinder and more understanding human beings.
For these reasons, it is important to be able to say sorry. Sometimes this entails having the humility to admit to other persons that we have wronged them. Sometimes it is only ourselves whom we have to tell. Perhaps the people with whom we would have wanted to speak are no longer alive, or beyond our reach. Perhaps we have to bear our regret internally, because to inform or remind the person we hurt would constitute a further wrong, a selfish indulgence to salve our own feelings.
Collectively, we have a responsibility to engender an environment in which it is possible to say sorry, to admit we’ve made mistakes, failed to live up to our values, and regret words we spoke and actions we did. Our response to the errors of others should not be self-righteous pride, but the humbling thought that ‘I, too, have done wrong things’. Otherwise we lock each other and ourselves in a prison of self-justification and self-deceit which prevents us from learning from our mistakes. For our mistakes are often our best, most unforgettable teachers.
But ‘speaking truth in our hearts’ is not only about critical self-examination. It is at least as important to re-affirm the good inside us. Only yesterday someone said to me, ‘I want to do more kindness in my life. Help me find the right context’.
Our inner world is fashioned not just from guilt but from hope, aspiration, love and the need for purpose. For months at a time we may be motivated by projects, hobbies, specific tasks. But our deepest sense of meaning, what gives significance to the years of our life, is what we give to others.
The first part of Hillel’s saying is justly famous, ‘If I am not for myself, who shall be for me?’ The second part is less often quoted: ‘When I am only for myself, what am I?’ This is not so much a moral comment about self-centredness, but an existential truth.
In the end, ‘I’ am not an enduring separate entity. I am born of life, nourished by life, dependent on life and belong to life. Who I am is what I give to life.