Content warning: Sexual assault.
It has been ages since I’ve attended a High Holiday service. The last time I remember going to a synagogue on Yom Kippur, I was still a doughy, acne-ridden teenager unburdened by the stresses and deadlines of university-level coursework.
Yet, one of the few lessons from Hebrew school that remains firmly planted in my mind, among useless SAT vocabulary words and random bits of Lady Gaga trivia, is that forgiveness is a mitzvah — not a recommendation, but an obligation. While my synagogue’s services often stressed the importance of asking for forgiveness ourselves, I was most drawn to the expectation that we extend an olive branch to others.
But now, many years removed from my time actually attending High Holiday services, Yom Kippur’s message of forgiveness has a new meaning.
As an advocate for survivors of sexual violence at my university, I’ve unfortunately been at the receiving end of a disclosure of sexual trauma more times than I can count. Close friends and acquaintances alike have reached out to me with questions about reporting to my school’s Title IX office or accessing legal resources in the community.
Every survivor that I’ve been privileged enough to speak with has a different experience, shaped by their respective identities and circumstances. Yet, despite the varying accounts I hear, many of these stories often share a common theme: blame. The blame is not directed toward those that caused them harm, but toward themselves:
“I shouldn’t have invited them over.”
“I shouldn’t have been drinking.”
“I shouldn’t have waited so long to say something.”
These statements pop up in my head uninvited while I’m tossing around in my sheets during a sleepless night or zoning out in the shower. Direct replicas of sentiments I once weaponized against myself, these words are a reminder that self-blame often forces survivors to take a detour on their path to healing.
Recently, I found myself grappling with forgiveness, like I had so many years before in Hebrew school. I realized that it is not only our duty to offer forgiveness to others, but to ourselves, too.
As we begin the High Holiday season, this shift in perspective can serve as a healing framework for survivors. While some of us may spend the day in services — either virtually or in-person — both asking for and offering forgiveness, we must not forget to extend that same courtesy to ourselves. Even if you don’t attend synagogue on Yom Kippur, forgiving ourselves should be a priority.
Yom Kippur is not a laid-back holiday: the fasting, the all-day services, and the emphasis on repentance and sin all add up to a tough 25-hour period. The hours reflecting on our mistakes can be grueling — but for survivors, taking the time to absolve ourselves of the blame we’ve internalized can prove worthwhile.
So this Yom Kippur, forgive yourself for inviting them over. Forgive yourself for taking that extra drink. Forgive yourself for not adhering to society’s expectations on reporting.
Of course, this act may appear contradictory. If we forgive ourselves for these actions, are we admitting that these actions led to our trauma? Are we engaging in the same victim-blaming rhetoric that is hurled at those who choose to come forward and silences those that don’t?
For survivors, forgiving ourselves is not a confirmation that we did in fact contribute to our trauma, but an acknowledgement that these feelings are very real and shape our ability to live on our own terms. Despite how many feminist infographics we share to our Instagram story, or how often we call out the victim-blaming we witness elsewhere, it can be difficult to apply that same thinking to our own experiences. Forgiving ourselves is the first step we can take to wholeheartedly and unabashedly believing that it wasn’t our fault.
Let me say that one more time: It wasn’t our fault. It wasn’t your fault.
But it is not enough to simply free ourselves from self-blame. If we are going to do Yom Kippur right, we should also forgive ourselves for having these very feelings in the first place. Healing is not a one-size fits all process; some survivors quickly rebound from their trauma, while others spend years grappling with their pain. In a moment of clarity, we may realize we are unfairly punishing ourselves for the actions of someone else and become upset that we could possibly be so irrational.
However, healing is not a rational process. It does not color inside the lines. If there was a self-help book titled “How to Perfectly Recover after a Sexual Assault” it would rapidly climb to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list and stay there forever. But there isn’t, because healing looks different for everyone. It’s a messy process that brings forth even messier feelings.
We often view self-care as face masks, a glass of wine after work, or allowing ourselves to binge all six seasons of Schitt’s Creek in a weekend. But for survivors, self-forgiveness is a radical act of self-care worthy of being included in every Yom Kippur observance.
Header image by GeorgePeters/Getty Images.