Stains in the Soul: How to Cleanse Your Unforgivable Sins

Staining My Mother’s Curtains

My mother had bought gorgeous green curtains for our living room. At that time, we struggled to make ends meet. For months she saved peso after peso, sewing dresses for other ladies on her Singer sewing machine. I can still see her standing with pride in front of the curtains. They were her Rembrandt. “Alfredo, I’m going for a few minutes to the supermarket,” she announced. As soon as she left, I took a piece of old carpet and used it as a frisbee. I threw it with all my might and saw a stream of red liquid coming out of it. The substance splashed directly on the curtains making a large red stain. I panicked. I ran to the laundry room, grabbed the detergent, and tried vainly to erase the stain. I could hear my mother opening the door. I had to make a split decision. Should I remain quiet or confess? My mother walked into the kitchen. I took her hand and silently brought her straight to the curtain. My body and soul were shaking. Teresa, my mom, could be unpredictable. She could shift from a bad temper to the sweetest being. She looked at me and said, “red looks good on green.”

Despite my mother’s forgiveness, that red stain seemed to have eyes. Those piercing red eyes followed me as I walked through the living room. They were accusatory and incriminating, a constant reminder of my transgression. In retrospect, I believe a punishment would have been a better deal than my mom’s acceptance. Her unconditional approval later left me with a lingering feeling of failure.   

When Forgiveness is not Enough

With time, the stain on the carpet fell into oblivion. However, a deeper stain remained fresh in my soul and psyche.

Some failures persist within ourselves, immune to confessions, forgiveness, or reparations. Betraying a friend or ignoring those in despair leaves you with a corroding acid in the soul. Though Judaism offers a chance for Teshuva, “repenting, returning, and then preventing a recurrence,” sometimes we feel paralyzed beyond repair.

The Cosmic Detergent

Haunted by our internal stains, Yom Kippur, atonement enters our lives. Atonement does not forget or forgive. Instead, it entails the laundering of our internal stains. It rescues us from the insufficiency of our regrets. It operates where admissions and retributions leave us empty.

Yom Kippur, the sages teach, does not expiate for transgression between humans. Not even God can solve our quarrels. But it effectively dilutes the feelings of worthlessness, disappointment, and evil lingering beyond our capacity to fix reality and ourselves. It acts as a cosmic detergent.

I hope this longing for inner cleansing moves us to fill our synagogues on Yom Kippur. Jews of all kinds of commitments and observance, I believe, will gather, united by their vulnerability, protecting each other as they confess and expose their stains. That’s why I always pause and reflect as we pronounce, “I will purify you from all your sins. Before God, you will be purified.” Notice that we are not forgiven but purified—purification beyond forgiveness. For purification to occur, we must admit and accept that the ultimate soul cleansing is beyond our reach.

How Yom Kippur Heals the Mind

Mental illness is a blood relative of guilt. We, who have a mental illness, hurt others. Though the inflicted pain is unintentional, we live with the unsettling feeling that our condition has limited and constrained our loved ones. We feel we owe more than we have given. In those moments of terrible guilt, we need a redeeming and compassionate force beyond ourselves to cleanse us.

A central prayer of the High Holyday is “Shema Koleinu,” “Listen to our voice.” As it leaves our lips, we long for somebody to listen to what we can’t utter. And then, once our voices, not words, are heard, “chuz ve rachem aleinu,” we seek compassion for our aching souls.  

Bagels, Lox, and a Clean Souls

Between the end of services on the night of Yom Kippur and stuffing myself with bagels and lox, I feel lighter. There is a feeling of fluffiness within me. The divine detergent has removed some of my stains.

Last April, I visited Buenos Aires, where I now write this blog. My parents had already left this world. My brother was renovating the apartment and removed the green curtains. I stood where I had thrown my devastating Frisbee and smiled. The eyes of incrimination had been shut. I uttered a silent prayer in recognition of that moment. My insight and outside were both cleansed.

May you find yourself freed from that persistent pain so deep inside. Release yourself to the expiatory power of the divine, whoever or whatever is that Being or Force. Be vulnerable for the sake of your purity. Above all, love yourself.   


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