[Sermon] Guilt & knots

Rabbi Sandra Kviat
Yom Kippur – 9 September 2019

“What, you didn’t have time to call your ailing Bubbe/Mother/Papa? All my friends are dying/busy/they don’t understand; the least you could do is call! So and so’s grandchild/child calls twice on Thursdays!”.

Writing the communal Al Chet, is one of the most meaningful experiences of the High Holy Days for me. In this prayer, which we write together, we voice all the things we are sorry for having done and that we wish not to do again. It’s meaningful not because I enjoy wallowing in other people’s guilt and despair, but because seeing, black on white, the behaviours that we struggle with, and that we all share or recognise in ourselves, is a powerful reminder that we all get it wrong at times, but that we return year after year, for we know that we can do better. We can change.

But this year was a bit of a surprise. Most other years, anger has by far been the highest in the stack, repeated in all its different forms. This year the stacks were smaller, but there were so many more of them instead. Impatience was definitely the most prevalent, but the pervading feeling through them all, was a strong sense of guilt.

Guilt with being selfish, self destructive, not looking after ourselves or our bodies better. Guilty for being too self-critical, or critical of anyone who does not agree with us. Guilty for being unkind, for the words that rush from our mouths and poisons. Feeling guilty for being distracted, for delaying what we really should be focusing on. Guilt for not being kinder to ourselves. Guilty for not coping, for despairing. Guilty for being arrogant or hypocritical. Guilty for doubting ourselves, for being indecisive, insecure or diffident. For not standing up for ourselves. And most visceral – guilty for not being able to stop and breathe, for worrying and panicking.

There’s plenty to feel guilty about in our own lives, in our behaviour towards our parents, our children, our friends, and coworkers. There’s the guilt closer to home; not spending enough time with the children, or too much time with the children and not on the partner or yourself. There’s the guilt of focusing too much on your own family and not on those who have no family, or network. There’s guilt at the political turmoil around us and the legacy that our children will have to bear. There’s the environmental damage that we have done without being aware, or that we continue to do for our everyday world is not set up to stop or change the structures of consumption. There’s the survivors guilt, as children of refugees and migrants how much are we doing to help all those who have no place to call home. And on and on in a never-ending circle.

Guilt is very Jewish, in the words of Molly Jong-Fast (daughter of Erica Jong) it’s [one of] the two great inheritances of the Jewish people: “irritable bowel syndrome and guilt1. And far from being a problem, that slight sick feeling in our kichkes, is vital for it shows that we know we have done something wrong.

Brene Brown, a research professor specialising in the areas of courage and shame, explains the inner workings of guilt and shame, well; “…guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort”.

I find this definition very helpful, for not only does it ,u>not say that that guilty feeling that sits like a heavy stone in your tummy is bad or wrong, but rather that is has a function that can be helpful.

Brown explains further; “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do that makes us unworthy of connection”.

And it’s a fascinating distinction for there is plenty of advice about ditching the guilt and leaning-in to what we love, in effect reducing the existence of guilt to something bothersome that stops us reaching the metaphorical sunrise of positivity. But I think that’s a misreading of what’s going on, for the issue is not guilt, but the shame. According to Professor Brown feeling guilty is about recognising that I did something bad, shame is thinking that I am bad. Guilt recognises that we make mistakes, shame says that we are mistakes. So guilt is therefore a fundamental part of the process for righting a wrong, because it makes us stop, and the sometimes-physical discomfort prevents us from ignoring it completely.

Recognising our self destructive behaviours, our lapses in kindness and patience or care for others can be painful, but it’s part of realising that we have failed to live up to our values. For without guilt we are not awoken to where we have missed the mark.

And so the liturgy/HHD asks us ‘what do you feel guilty about’? What situations leave you with that sense of unease? And what are you going to be doing about it?’

What we have to be wary of is if or when this self reflection turns into shame? Is your internal thermometer veering from feeling guilty, into the red areas of shame, of feeling unworthy, unloveable? The self-critical voice is very good at pushing us from the green of normal guilt into the red of shame and isolation. “Messing up a presentation / sermon / meeting / opportunity can end up being an indictment: you’re not good enough, you’re a mess, your unworthy, instead of the presentation was a bit of a mess, the sermon a bit superficial, the meeting somewhat disorganised.”

I do wonder what Professor Brown would make of the guilt trips of yiddishe parents? “You never call, visit, invite me over,” is by the way not only a trope restricted to mothers, Jewish fathers also do this exceptionally well. Is the guilt trip a form of guilt or shame? I guess it depends on how it makes you feel, does it make you cut off ties or tie you into knots? Does it stop you from acting or spur you on?

There’s a Jewish folktale that imagines what happens spiritually as we go through life, making mistakes, feeling guilty and then making amends.

“When every person is created, there’s a string connecting the person with the divine, like a spiritual umbilical cord. If the person does wrong, the cord breaks, but if the person repents and seeks teshuva during the High Holy Days, an angel comes down and ties a knot in the cord, connecting the person and the divine again. As every person sins the cord becomes full of knots. But as we all know, the more knots, the shorter the cord, which is why repentance brings a person closer to The Divine2”.

I love this idea of a spiritual umbilical cord full of knots and bumps. And I think the image works, even if you’d rather replace God with a sense of that which is beyond us. I do think that there’s one problem in the story, and that’s the idea of the angel tying the knots. I rather think the whole process of teshuva, of accepting the guilt and then acting on it, is us tying the knots, we’re the knotters. The act of tying a knot is the important part of the story, for gives us the power to act and to change, to heal. And another thought – if we can tie knots into the cord of the divine, surely we can tie knots in other cords too?

I don’t know how much you know about knots, but if you’re anything like me, the only knots you encounter are the ones in your shoe laces or your phone/computer chargers.

A knot is a knot is a knot, right? Not really.

Knots are connectors, strengthening what is weak or severed, joining something together. Knots can also strangle, or stop movement, make something permanent. And some knots can move, like the slide knot used in bracelets and necklaces. Some knots are permanent, others only meant for a short while. A surgeon’s knot is potentially life saving, whereas the knot in a noose extinguishes life. According to the bible of knot tying; ‘The Ashley Book of Knots’, there are at least 3,854 different kinds of knots. And to our lay ears they have great poetical names; “Knots Tied in the Night, The Noose, Belaying and Making Fast, Hooks, Beckets, and Toggles, Miscellaneous Holdfasts, Odd Splices3.

And there are of course Jewish knots too, in case you weren’t aware, there are whole tractates on how to tie a kosher knot on shabbat, or how to tie your tzitzit, the tassels on the corners of you tallit. The knotted tassel is not only a Jewish symbol, in Eastern traditions, as well as descriptions dating back to Egyptian and Roman times it was used as a protective talisman, as a symbol of power and prestige, and as in the Torah a symbol of the spiritual connection to the divine. And knots are used in magic, to cast or undo spells.

Knots are also part of our emotional vocabulary; we say that we tie ourselves into knots when we are worried or upset, when faced with immensely complexity we want to cut the Gordian knot, we tie the knot when we get married, our hands are bound when we can’t act, stress and worry leaves our muscles knotted. We have knots in our stomach when we are anxious or perhaps feel guilty. And when we are feeling insecure, or confused we say that we are unmoored, we’re not bound to anything, to reality, or to each other.

It’s interesting that most of the phrases about knots tend to relate to something negative. And yet, even in the name we have chosen for our community, chavurah, lies a thought-provoking lesson. Though we usually translate chavurah from chaver, meaning friend or likeminded, the original biblical meaning of the root ch-v-r means ‘to tie knots with’. A chavurah is the place where we tie knots with other people, where we become entwined. Not to hold back or worry, but to weave something stronger and bigger than ourselves, to create a tapestry that tells the story of our lives.

There are knots in the tapestry that show the times when our lives fell apart and it was the knots of friendship and community that held us together. And there are knots that reminds us of the pain of being pulled between family and community. There are other knots that tell of the time when young babies arrived and were woven into the community, or when children tied their own knots as they began the journey towards adulthood, there are knots that were tied with love and hope for the future, and knots that have loosened or frayed, there are old familiar knots and new ones shiny with promise. There are knots tied with tears, fears, and guilt, and others with deep joy. The chavurah, this community, is tied by our stories; the best, worst, and everyday parts of our lives. Some of us have created complex knots whilst others have only begun to tie a few. Our collective patterns tell the tale of where we have been, but it also hold out a promise, that there is space for you, for your own knots and patterns if you want to tie them.

And during these days of introspection, when we reflect on those guilty knots inside of us, we are reminded that we are not alone, that we are not tying a lonely string to itself. We are asked to tie our collective fears, our guilt, and our worries, we are sharing our anxieties, and letting the community hold them and transform us into new patterns of being. We are reminded that teshuva offers us the hope of being able to move forward to tie new and different knots. And sometimes, also to be allowed to leave a knot behind, a relationship or connection that is too painful or damaging.

In the act of tying we remind ourselves that we have made mistakes, sometimes devastating ones, but that we are not the mistakes ourselves. In the act of sharing the guilt, in the trust we find when offering our thread, we strengthen ourselves and each other. The more knots we tie with others, the less isolated we feel. We might still be alone, but a community of knots can help combat loneliness.

And so we make up a whole new vocabulary of knots when we say the vidui prayer with each other. Together we will tie the Yiddishe mame noose, the guilt hook, the spiritual toggle, the shame holdfasts, the guilt splice. The back of patterns often tells the real story of our lives, with opposing knots and loose threads, they show the difficult times, and the joyful ones; and they invite us to continue the story together.

May our knots always be strong, and flexible. May we honour the old knots, and rejoice in the new ones. Let us feel the courage to tie knots of tears and sorrow, of fear and guilt. And let us remember to also tie knots of joy when the time comes. May we accept that the tapestry changes as we ourselves change.

Let us continue to grow, as individuals, and as a chavurah together; knots and all.

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4560119/
2 Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls, 2004, p.292.
3 https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/t-magazine/the-art-of-knots.html

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