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Doubting Ourselves

A deeply thoughtful, contemplative person, let’s call her Janene, comes to me depressed, sad, anxious.  She has taken the spirit of this month seriously-- too seriously.  Yes there is such a thing.  Let me explain.   The month of Elul—the month immediately preceding the High Holy Days—is meant to be one of spiritual preparation-- where one should take a close look at one’s own life—to judge oneself through introspection and correct mistakes of the past through repentance.    But again, this year, Janene has gone overboard with this command.   She has been combing through every one of the past year’s experiences, remembering details of all of her interpersonal interactions—and picking apart all that she has done wrong.  If we looked at Janene’s actions on a chart listing what she has done well vs. what needs improvement, you or I would likely consider Janene to be a good person—she has even heard people call her a mentsch because of her good actions.  She has been kind to her relatives, and is devoted to her family and her work.    But, Janene is hard on herself.  She doubts herself and only focuses on the negative.  She doesn't see how devoted and thoughtful of a friend she is; that she carefully observed quarantine for two weeks so she could care for her friend, how she drove him to the hospital and waited for hours before being allowed to drive him back home.  Instead, she regrets not having stayed at his home to care for him longer.  She regrets not having brought him flowers.  And she regrets not calling to follow-up.  She picks apart every single encounter and doubts herself. She doubts her intentions and doubts her actions.  Janene has gone beyond the kind of contemplation of her actions that the tradition would want and of us to do-- her doubt has become her own worst enemy because she has begun to question her own self-worth.   Those of us who have perfectionist tendencies or who know someone who does, can relate.   We know of those people who are always down on themselves and who can’t see the good that they perpetuate in the world.  One of the 77 commandments listed in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzeh is one that seems particularly obscure—confusing—that is until we look deeper and find a spiritual meaning. It states: Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way when you were leaving Egypt;  Who is this AMALEK anyway?   The book of Exodus shares with us that when the Israelites were leaving Egypt, escaping from the persecution of slavery, after they crossed the red sea, a man named Amalek came about and pursued them.   Spiritually, who is Amalek?  Rebbe Yosef Yitzhak of the early 20th century notes: in gematriya, Amalek equals 240 That is the same as the word for doubt = which also equals 240. In this way, Rebbe Yosef Yitzhak is showing us that spiritually, our biggest enemy is doubt. And, at this, the end of the Jewish year, many of us are doubting our own actions in this way.  I know each of us did a lot of good this year, but when the theme of the entire month of Elul is repentance, and we are commanded to be introspective and correct the errors of the year, some of us run into a dangerous situation.   Maybe you, or your spouse or child has these tendencies, too. People like us are overly hard on ourselves.  Especially at this time of year each of us is especially prone to beat up on ourselves—to hold ourselves up to our own impossibly high standards.  We feel that we can’t ever do enough for the world.  This leads us to doubt ourselves and sometimes even doubt our own self-worth. This type of doubt paralyzes us.  It keeps us from affirming our own value to the world.  It makes us feel terrible, keeps us from recognizing the Creator’s light within ourselves.   Yes, when we crossed the Red Sea, we escaped the physical pursuit of the Egyptians.  But, we did not escape the spiritual pursuit of our own harsh, overly critical selves.  The Amalek of Doubt has that tendency to pursue us, and chase us every step of our spiritual journey through life.   In this way, we are sometimes our own Amalek—instilling the destructive force of doubt into our souls.   At this time of year, we are more prone to this pursuer than ever—we are commanded to find fault in our actions over the past year so that we might make restitution and make corrections in the coming year.  But, our tradition would not want those of us who are already overly self-critical—to go overboard with this decree.   We should acknowledge our faults and try to correct them, but we should not let critique diminish our own intrinsic, inherent value.   Our Torah portion also notes that a person – think of a merchant—should have fair weights and measures.  Spiritually, too, we should all judge ourselves fairly, and not give undue weight to our missteps or our good deeds.  A nice even keel is best.  Confident that we are worthy to be alive, but humble enough to acknowledge that we are not perfect.   As we continue our journey of introspection and repentance this month, let us each do so with a renewed commitment to being fair to ourselves, and encouraging others to be fair to themselves, as well.  Amen.

The above is a reflection by Rabbi Heather Miller on this week's Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19. Please visit to subscribe and follow on social media.

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