Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Monday, September 26, 2011

Walk Article


Rosh Hashanah-5772

Rabbi David Walk


            Like so many character traits, shame has both positive and negative aspects to it.  When feeling ashamed prevents me from doing something nasty, that's good.  However, when shame prevents me from performing my responsibilities within society, that is very bad.  As we approach the New Year and prepare for Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, a certain shame must be felt as we review our behavior of the past year.  If you feel no shame for any action of the past year, you're either a saint or not totally honest with yourself.   I don't know many saints, but self delusion seems pretty common.  So, let's take a little peek at healthy shame.

            Recently there was a fascinating article on the Edge.org website, by Dr. Jennifer Jacquet of the University of British Columbia, about the biological necessity of shame.  She said, in part:  Balancing group and self-interest has never been easy, yet human societies display a high level of cooperation. To attain that level, specialized traits had to evolve, including such emotions as shame. Shame is what is supposed to occur after an individual fails to cooperate with the group. Shame regulates social behavior and serves as a forewarning of punishment: conform or suffer the consequences.  So, Dr. Jacquet presumes that shame is a necessary evolutionary tool to help society function more smoothly.  She also pointed out that the feeling of being watched enhances cooperation, and so does the ability to watch others.   This has been demonstrated experimentally by researchers at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne (UNUT?).  They examined the effect of a picture of a pair of eyes on payments for tea and coffee to an honor system box. Alternating images of flowers and human faces were posted above the box in the university coffee room each week for ten weeks; researchers found that people paid nearly three times as much for their drinks in weeks during which they were exposed to the human gaze.  Shame works.  Ask Hester Prynne.

            Before I go on with Jewish sources about shame, allow me one short digression.  Dr. Jacquet points out the difference between shame and guilt.  She elucidates that guilt is evoked by an individual's standards, shame is the result of group standards. Therefore, shame, unlike guilt, is felt only in the context of other people.  These two traits are called busha and klima in our traditional texts.  And Isaiah talks about people weighing themselves with two different systems (40:12).  One is called peles which weighs something based upon the distance from the base.  This is like guilt; I weigh myself with reference only to myself.  The other scale is called maznayim or balance scale, where I measure myself against an objective measure or weight.  This is akin to shame.  We utilize both metrics in our teshuva process.  There must be personal expectations and societal norms.

            The Talmud discusses how to determine if someone is Jewish, and concludes that this nation is distinguished by three characteristics: They are compassion (rachmonim, perhaps empathy), easily ashamed (bayshonim) and performers of acts of kindness (gomlei chasadim, Yevamot 79a).  So, we see that the ability to be shamed is inherent to our tribe.  This must have positive ramifications for our spiritual growth.  Normally, we would prefer not to be embarrassed and shamed.  We actually pray for this in the blessing for the New Moon recited on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh every month.  This may be a reason that we don't recite that prayer on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, because during the period of repentance we view these attributes as beneficial to the process.    

             Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook (1860-1935) wrote:  Shame which is felt deeply within one's heart because of a sin, even though it's a natural reaction, nevertheless it is an atoning experience. And when the individual intends to expand this feeling of embarrassment over this specific sin, it also expands the entire atonement granting apparatus to include other sins as well.  This shame mentioned by Rav Kook over a specific sin he feels is natural.  However, this mentioning of embarrassment is also part of the general confession text, even without specifying a particular transgression.  Here's the text, which we declare right after the lists of general sins:  Here I stand before You like a vessel filled with shame and embarrassment.  This idea is reinforced in Maimonides Laws of Repentance, when he says that the wording of a confession should begin with the following words:  O Lord, I have sinned, transgressed and rebelled before You, and have done such- and-such, and I am ashamed by my actions and will never do it again (Chapter 1, Halacha 1).  I believe that this declaration is based upon the public confession performed by Ezra the Scribe:  O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You, my God, for our iniquities have increased over our heads, and our guilt has grown up to the heavens. Since the days of our forefathers, we are in great guilt until this day, and because of our iniquities, we were delivered-we, our kings, our priests-into the hands of the kings of the lands by the sword, in captivity, and with plunder and with shame-facedness as of this day (Ezra 9:6-7). 

            Here's what I believe that Rav Kook is teaching us.  When I confront someone whom I have wronged it's natural to feel shame and embarrassment.  That feeling permeates my psyche and helps to inoculate me from that behavior (at least for a few minutes).  Our job during the Ten Days of Repentance which begin on Rosh Hashanah is to generate that moral discomfort about our general behavior patterns of the last year.  It doesn't come naturally or easily.  But here's the point:  You should be ashamed of yourself, because it helps you overcome those obstacles to the ethical life we all want.  Have a happy, sweet and meaningful New Year!



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