In the vidui, the confession to be recited so many times at this season, we find the phrase “Al cheit she’chatanu lefanecha b’tim’hon ley’vav – For the sin we have committed before you by giving in to despair.” It slips by almost unnoticed most of the time as we recite a catalogue of misbehaviours by rote. But is despair really a sin and can we repent of it and actively change our attitudes? R. Nachman of Bratslav is credited with crystallising the concept, saying “there is no such thing as despair” and even, on his death bed: “Assur l’hit’ya-esh – It is forbidden to despair – never give up hope” (Likutei Moharan ll.78).
In our machzor the phrase comes in a set which includes the sins of plotting against others, hard heartedness, arrogance, and giving in to our evil impulse and secrecy. It is a strange positioning – The giving in to despair is sandwiched between a sense of our own arrogance– literally eynaim ramot – raised eyes, and our own yetzer ha’ra – our selfishness and base inclination. This placing seems to suggest that when we choose not to engage with reality, either by refusing to see what is around us or by allowing our internally constructed world view to dominate us – that is when despair creeps in.
Nachman also wrote “Im atta m’amim she’y’cholin lekalkeil, ta’amin she’y’cholim le’taken: – If you believe that it is possible to break things, you must also believe that it is possible to repair things”. So whatever we have broken in the past year let’s not despair, but know that it is time to repair by really noticing what is happening around us rather than living in the bubble of our own self constructed realities.