Rabbi Shimon said: Be careful with the reading of Shema and with prayer; and when you pray, do not make your prayers routine, but compassionate and a supplication before G-d, for it is said: “for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and renouncing punishment” (Joel 2:13); and do not judge yourself to be a wicked person. (Avot 2:13)
Rabbi Shimon, who was described by his teacher Rabbi Yochanan as someone who fears sin, cautions us to “Be careful with the reading of Shema and with prayer.” Rabbi Yosef Yavetz connects his advice to his personality. Someone who wants to fear sin, should be diligent to recite Shema and pray at the proper time (Rashi), and with the proper intention (Tiferet Yisrael). This process will facilitate the internalization of the values inherent in these texts. Yet, since these recitations are obligatory multiple times per day, there is a danger that they will become rote, so he cautions further, “and when you pray, do not make your prayers routine, but compassionate and a supplication before G-d.” The idea on its own is intuitive, but the proof-text used to support the contention is odd. While the message is that our prayers should be compassionate, the verse talks about G-d’s compassion: “for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and renouncing punishment” (Joel 2:13). The connection between the idea and the prooftext requires elucidation.
The closing of the Mishna, “And be not wicked in your own esteem,” at first glance seems disconnected from the first two clauses, but perhaps it provides the interpretive clue to understand the entirety of the Mishna. Someone who fears sin may be more likely to condemn himself above and beyond what is normal, healthy, or deserving. Rabbi Shimon wants to be clear that fearing sin should not lead to a self-perception of being wicked if one does sin. As both Rambam and Rabbeinu Yonah argue, when someone considers himself as a wicked person, there is a strong likelihood that will lead to him sinning even more. Considering oneself as wicked will also lead to the belief that repentance is impossible (Sforno). When someone does sin, the goal is to acknowledge the sin, feel remorse, and resolve not to repeat it. The process does not include thinking of oneself as wicked.
As Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski notes, the distinction that many psychologists make between the emotions of shame and guilt helps illustrate this point. He writes that,
Guilt is a distressful sensation resulting from the awareness that one has done something wrong. Healthy guilt can lead teshuvah, to making amends for the wrong and to take preventative measures to avoid a recurrence. Shame, on the other hand, is a sensation that one is somehow bad, even though one may not be able to identify why he should think of himself as being bad. To put in another way, guilt is a statement, “I made a mistake,” whereas shame is a statement, “I am a mistake.”
This point is encapsulated with an added spiritual angle by Rabbi Aryeh Leib Heller in his introduction to his work Shev Shmat’ta. Utilizing a creative reading of the Mishna, he writes that “Do not be evil in your own esteem (bifnei atsmecha),” means do not look at yourself as evil “in your essence” (beatzmutecha). This is because “we are holy seed and do not change in our essence, and all of the sins of Bnei Yisrael are just in appearance but are not permanent – they are only present from time to time.” Thinking of one’s essence as being bad is theologically incorrect and will psychologically lead to despair of improvement.
With a polemical tone, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch connects this third idea to the previous two. Probably alluding to the doctrine of “original sin,” Rabbi Hirsch writes:
Do not allow yourself to be taken in by the erroneous idea advanced by alien philosophies that man must be crushed by the weight of his guilt and that only through the gracious intercession of another can he be delivered from the burden of his sin. In reality the one person able to free you from the chains of sin and raise you to the level of pure and free service of G-d is none other than you yourself. Prayer uttered in the proper spirit will be that source from which you will derive the strength and Divine aid that you need in all your efforts at self-liberation from evil.
It is specifically through prayer that we learn that we should not consider ourselves as evil. Prayer empowers the individual to transcend such erroneous self-conceptualizations.
Perhaps we can take the connection between prayer and “do not be wicked in your own esteem” a step further. The straightforward explanation of the second clause of the Mishna is that prayer shouldn’t be fixed or rote, but rather should be compassionate supplications. However, as noted, the prooftext, which speaks of G-d’s compassion, requires elaboration. Perhaps the message is that prayer should lead one to have self-compassion. Prayer, especially when viewed as an introspective process, can potentially generate negative self-evaluations. Your prayer shouldn’t be overly harsh and critical toward yourself, but rather should be self-compassionate, because after all, G-d is compassionate towards you. As psychologist Kristen Neff (2014) has documented, there are numerous benefits to being self-compassionate, including higher levels of happiness, well-being and life satisfaction. Additionally, self-compassionate people tend to have better relationships and are more compassionate to others as well. Most importantly for our current context, Breines and Chen (2012) found that self-compassionate people were more motivated to change their behavior than people who would self-punish. Self-compassion does not lead to an evasion of responsibility, but strengthens accountability, and allows for self-improvement.
According to this reading of our Mishna, Rabbi Shimon is teaching, just like G-d is compassionate toward us, so too, we should be compassionate towards ourselves. We should not view ourselves as wicked. It is not true, and it is not helpful. If we sin, we should feel guilty, work on improving, but not condemn ourselves as evil. As the Talmud (Shabbat 133b) tells us, G-d is compassionate, so too we should be compassionate. Perhaps this message is not only addressing how we should relate to others, but even encouraging being compassionate towards ourselves.