Torah for Today: what the Torah says about Survivor Guilt

Torah for Today: what the Torah says about Survivor Guilt

Torah For TodayBy Rabbi Naftali Schiff

A cursory search produces a number of less than funny jokes about Jewish guilt, referernces to overbearing mothers, mothers-in-law, lack of religious devotion, to obsessively saying sorry, it seems like a guilt complex is a major part of our culture.

I’m not sure how this stereotype developed among the general populace, but when it comes to survivor guilt this is a real issue. Disasters claim victims and spare survivors, and many survivors are plagued by a feeling of guilt because they were spared while others perished. I have been privileged to spend many hundreds of hours interviewing numerous Holocaust survivors, recording their legacy for posterity.

Each interaction has been a uniquely humbling experience, peeling away the exterior layers to reveal the deep-felt emotions that lie within these remarkable people. On occasion, they have shared secrets that have gnawed away at them over two generations, often accompanied by deep rooted feelings of guilt.

Ours is not to cast judgement on any authentic human response to any situation, certainly not one intertwined with tragedy, pain and consternation. It is interesting to note however, that Biblical Hebrew does not have a word for guilt. The closest we have is the word asham, a derivative of which, ashamnu, begins the vidui part of the prayer service (mistakenly translated as confession) on Yom Kippur. In truth asham comes from the word shamem, desolation.

On Yom Kippur, we say that our misdeeds have rendered us desolate, however, as the Hebrew word vidui implies, this is rather an honest process of self-examination and recognition, rather than a proclamation of guilt. Our vidui is a recognition of what we have become, rather than bearing the burden of sin. We admit, confess and show regret, but we are not advised to navigate the journey of life laden with the angst of guilt. Guilt is debilitating and serves no constructive purpose.

It is not an authentically Jewish response to our actions, however misguided we may have been. Similarly, when occurrences befall us, we view them as being providential. We can never choose what comes our way on life’s journey, however we are always free to choose our responses. We can never judge those who have been through traumatic experiences. However, the Torah does provide us with guidelines for emotional and spiritual health in which guilt ideally should be set free.

•Last week’s Torah For Today on internet privacy was by Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence and not as stated.

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Sedra: Chayei Sara

Ask the Rabbi: 13/11/2014


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