a painting of Jews in eastern European clothing praying
Detail from “Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur” by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878

Prayer meets psychology: On Yom Kippur, seek a ‘growth mindset’

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.

If you want to understand the mindset of a people, pay attention to their key prayer on their holiest day of the year. The key prayer of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the long confessional. We recite it 10 times on this most holy day.

What is the thinking behind all of this self-criticism?

The answer takes us into a fascinating area of research that can change the way you view the world.

Listen to the following two sentences, and think about whether you agree or disagree with each of them.

You are a certain kind of person. There is not much that can be done to really change that.

No matter what kind of person you are, you can always change substantially.

If you agree with the first, you have what Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck has called a “fixed mindset.” If you agree with the second, you tend to have what Dweck has called a “growth mindset.”

Dweck has spent her career studying these mindsets, and this is how she explains them:

People who have a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are basically set. Maybe you believe you are a pretty good public speaker, an average basketball player and a wonderful organizer. With a fixed mindset, you believe you might get a little bit better or worse at those skills. But basically your abilities reflect the way you are wired. Your behavior, then, is a good representation of your natural ability, just as the first taste of wine is a good representation of the bottle you’ve bought.

If you have a fixed mindset, Dweck argues, you tend to avoid challenges because you fear that if you fail, others will see your failure as an indication of your true ability and so see you as a loser. You feel threatened and hurt by negative feedback when you’ve done something wrong because it seems as if the critics are saying that you are bad, and that what you’ve done is a reflection of you.

In contrast, if you have a growth mindset, you believe that abilities are like muscles. They can be strengthened with practice. With a growth mindset, you accept challenges despite the risk of failure. After all, when you try but fail to lift more weight at the gym, you don’t worry that everybody will mock you as a born weakling. And you’re not put off by criticism because you know that ultimately it makes you better.

Dweck has studied how the two mindsets influence Olympic athletes and great musicians, as well as everyday people. In her book “Mindset,” she demonstrates that a growth mindset will make you more successful at almost anything. That’s because people with a growth mindset take risks, accept negative feedback, and grow from failure, so they progress in their lives and careers.

Judaism champions a growth mindset. And nowhere is it expressed more than in the central prayer of Yom Kippur, the confessional. We strike our heart over and over as we enumerate our misdeeds to drive home the point that although we have failed, we are not defined by our mistakes. We can grow from them; we can be better in the future. Indeed, at the heart of Yom Kippur is the awareness that God forgives our mistakes if we admit they were mistakes and if we strive to learn from them, so that we are not the same tomorrow as we were yesterday.

Yom Kippur is about the honesty that leads to greatness: our ability to say “we have sinned” over and over, and yet know that this is not a put-down. Rather it is the prelude to greater achievement in the future.

There is another aspect of the confessional that is striking: Many of the sins are ascribed to parts of the body. For example: “Forgive us for the sins we have committed with the speech of the mouth, with feet running to do bad …”

By identifying parts of the body involved, we are saying that while we have allowed our physical body to act improperly, there is a deeper self that is not bad, that we can change. This is a growth mindset. In fact, the whole idea of teshuvah — admission, confession, healing the past and coming back to our true self – is about personal growth.

This Shabbat — between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of return and repentance. And if we take the message of this season to heart, we will understand that God empowers and forgives us. He is the God who wants us to grow.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.