Judaism is optimistic about human nature. Judaism believes that human beings have the capacity to change. When Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil they acquire the ability to discern right from wrong and to make appropriate choices. Free will makes our choices consequential. Judaism is a system of mitzvot (commandments) which govern our relationship to God and to other human beings. We are what we do and we are what we choose, and we are responsible for our choices. Our nature is not predetermined. Therefore a process of assessment and correction is important. This process is known as teshuvah (repentance). Ideally, repentance is not limited to any season or some holy day like Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). In a very interesting and telling Mishnah Rabbi Eliezer taught, “Repent one day before your death.” (The Ethics of the Fathers 2:10) In the Talmud we find that “his disciples asked him, ‘Does then one know on what day he will die?’ and he replied, ‘Then all the more reason to repent today,’” (B.Shabbat 153a) Judaism teaches us that we should be constantly examining our behavior with the goal of improving ourselves. Obviously this is difficult, and therefore, while it is the ideal, Judaism sets aside a specific period for individuals and the community to engage in an elaborate process of self reflection and teshuvah.
The first step in performing Teshuvah (repentance) according to the Rambam (Maimonidies) is Hakarat Ha-Chait (recognizing the sin). Jewish values help us understand when we have sinned and the steps needed to repent for that sin. But there is a corollary to that understanding that Jewish values can also help define. There are times that we feel guilty for actions that are not sins. Jewish values can help us define what is not a sin. For example it is not unusual for children to feel guilty toward their parents. At times the guilt is Jewishly justified. For example, if parents are truly unable to care for themselves in terms of food, shelter and health, children have an obligation to help their parents, and feel deserved guilt if they have the means but don’t provide the aid. However, if a child would be resentfully battling his parents should he take them into his home, or if he would be unable to provide the best medical care in his home, he would be fulfilling the Mitzvah of honoring one’s parents in a more preferred way by placing them in a nursing home. In such a situation, any guilt felt for such placement would be undeserved guilt according to Jewish values.