That there could be a relationship between the yamim noraim and psychology shouldn’t surprise us. After a 19th century of physiological treatments for mental illness—warm baths, cold-water hosing, mesmerism, hypnotism, hysterectomy—who but a Jew, Sigmund Freud, could conceive that a person might get better by talking—and thinking?
What’s the similarity? Basically, I’ve come to regard teshuvah da’at—assessment and understanding of one’s thoughts and feelings—as a form of psychotherapy. Thus, when we seek mechilah, when we daven the amidot of the yamim noraim, and when we recite Viduy aloud, we are engaging in the individual and collective psychotherapy of our faith.
Yet, what’s the nature of the teshuvah we might seek? Klopping Viduy, I’ve found myself musing, “Thank God, I’m not cut out for a lot of these averot,” or intentional transgressions. Still, I could be; anyone could be. And with time, they could become peshot, or defiant transgressions. Thus, I keep that in mind, so even a cheit, or error, doesn’t become a habit, and ultimately part of my character.
That’s because sadly, the more I’ve come to understand about human nature, the more I’ve come to discern that any man—or woman—can willfully become a Hillel or a Hitler. Now that might seem a bit of a stretch. Yet, in this past century, we’ve also witnessed the genocide of millions of Cambodians under Pol Pot, of thousands of Bosnian Muslims under Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, of 800,000 Tutsi by Hutus in Rwanda, of murders of thousands in Uganda under Idi Amin, and the dynastic degradation of the human spirit under three generations of North Korea’s Kim family.
Indeed, that may be the tragic truth in Hashem’s declaration to Noah after the flood that “the imagery of [humankind’s] heart is evil from its youth.” (Genesis, 8:21).
Thus, with such a divine assessment, what’s a person to do? Well, we should always remember that we are not prisoners of our primary process—our impulses and angry reactions. We are equally endowed with what we call secondary process, or conscious thought. And we do have agency, the power to bend our abilities to achieve what is good and just, while being equally respectful of our fellow beings—if we choose so. We can, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “heed the higher angels of our nature.”
So, with Yom Kippur behind us, facing the new year ahead, what can we do to resolve that the change of heart we may have experienced becomes an enduring one? Let me suggest we weigh the authenticity of our teshuvah in all our actions in daily life. We all have good intentions, but we know where that road can lead. Only if we change our orientation toward action instead, can we succeed. Then:
We will not be humbled, or laid low, but show real humility.
We will not be grateful for this or that, but possess genuine gratitude.
We will not take pity on others, but feel compassion for our fellow beings, who are neither lesser nor greater persons, but full equals, and thus equally deserving of respect.
So, let us come out of these Days of Awe with joy: Joy in the knowledge that as compassionate men and women, we do have the agency to be the best menschen we can be. And with that, we surely can build a better world.
Yet, we should also remind ourselves that the yamim noraim aren’t all about psychology and phenomenology. There is indeed still a sense of awe and wonder in our faith. So, I’d like to end here with a haiku I wrote a decade ago:
The Shechinah shifts
sadly from place to place waiting
on our teshuvah
David Kach is a psychotherapist in private practice. He has lived in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan since 1980, with a nine-year hiatus in Tokyo.