Unwitting Guilt

March 31st: Vayikra
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Exegesis and Eisegesis are two terms used in Biblical interpretation. Exegesis is a legitimate drawing of a lesson from a Biblical passage. Eisegesis, on the other hand, involves using the Biblical passage as a springboard for a completely unrelated teaching important to the commentator (or sermon giver). One is supposed to make sure that commentaries are Exegesis, and one is supposed to resist Eisegesis, but every rule needs an occasional exception.

My point of departure this week is Leviticus 4.1: ““When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them…” Mistakes happen, and the Torah provides various ceremonies for people to get themselves ritually and spiritually right. Whereas the Torah is talking about inadvertently breaking rules, what I want to address are the ways that we can take on guilt mistakenly—feeling guilt that is undeserved.  

Many years ago, in the health food store, I chanced to see someone I sort of knew. We had never met, but I knew who he was. I happened to notice the things he was buying, and it struck me that he must be quite ill. He did not look ill, but the nature of his purchases gave me a feeling that something was seriously amiss. I didn’t say anything because I did not want to pry and, frankly, because we really didn’t know each other. Two days later, I read in the paper that he had committed suicide and that the reason was a recent diagnosis of a terrible disease. The whole thing was obviously a tragedy, but what struck me was my response. I felt guilty—as though I should have said or done something, as though whatever I could/should have done would have fixed the problems. It was ridiculous, but I felt guilty.

A more appropriate response would have been sadness, but I took the appropriate response and jumped straight to guilt—unfounded, unhelpful guilt.

There is a difference between sadness and guilt. There is a difference between disapproval and guilt. It is possible to grieve or disagree or even be angry without feeling responsible for something bad or sad. Guilt is for things for which we have responsibility, but we are masters of guilt and can transform any sad or bad news into guilt. It’s one of our Jewish abilities. In the Biblical idiom—we can “incur guilt unwittingly.”

A cause and a possible solution come from one of the great Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World) texts in the Talmud. Though the Bible teaches us frequently that we should help the poor and the downtrodden, the enormity of suffering can be overwhelming, and we can become paralyzed in the face of it all. Rabbi Tarphon addresses this dynamic in Pirke Avot 2.21 when he says, “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it.” Though the problems of the world are enormous, we should nonetheless do our small part to make it better—to heal or repair the world.

The problem, for many of us, is that we somehow do not hear the first part of Rabbi Tarphon’s teaching, “You are not required to complete the work.” Our sense of moral and social responsibility pushes us to want every problem fixed and every kind of suffering alleviated, and our inadequacy to fix everything can morph into guilt. Of course, we have an obligation to help—and some of us may not be doing enough, but guilt over the world’s problems is not appropriate or helpful. There is a difference between yearning for a better world and feeling guilty about the world’s imperfections.

Here are some of the problems of unwitting or inappropriate guilt

(1)   Guilt can obscure our analysis of actual problems and their possible solutions. Guilt is essentially an emotional response, and, as important as emotions are, clear and level-headed thinking is necessary if we are to figure out the causes and the possible solutions for the world’s problems.

(2)   Guilt can be self-indulgent. We can put so much energy into feeling guilty that the guilt becomes our response. We feel like we’re actually doing something, but the fact is that guilt does not help anyone. It is certainly not a contribution to Tikkun Olam.

(3)   Guilt can make us vulnerable to manipulation in policy discussions—manipulation that can be counterproductive for all involved. Some people think that identifying and blaming others is how a problem is solved. It is important to identify the causes of a problem, but the blame game is too often too simplistic and vindictive to see all the causes and all the possible solutions. If we add unnecessary guilt to the equation, we can allow ourselves to be held responsible for things over which we had/have no control. This can often involve blaming entire groups or excluding entire groups from discussion because of their guilt—a guilt which is neither deserved nor relevant.

The next time we hear terrible news, let us resist the temptation to feel guilt over something that is not our fault. Let us separate between sadness and guilt; between anger and guilt. Let us keep our wits about us and think clearly because clear thinking and a sober assessment of reality is our best bet for Tikkun Olam.

We can also consider Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s teaching on the subject. In his book, The Wisdom of the Jewish Sages, he rephrases Rabbi Tarphon’s proverb with a little help from the Prophet Micah: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now.”