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Healthy Shame

There’s a very poignant moment right at the beginning of Parashat Shmini in the Torah. Moses calls to his brother Aharon to take his place officially as the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest of Israel. And Moses says “Krav el hamizbe’ach,” “Come forward to the altar.” Rashi, the great medieval commentator, explains that Aharon himself wouldn’t come forward. He was bashful—“Hayah Aharon boosh v’yareh lageshet,” Aharan was ashamed and afraid to approach to take his place—not until Moses verbally proded him—“Come forward!”—“Lamah atah boosh?” Why are you ashamed, Aharon? For this [for this priesthood] were you chosen! So why was Aharon so ashamed and bashful? We get lots of theories from our rabbinic commentators. The M’norat HaMa’or explains that Aharon felt ashamed to take such an exalted position after having assisted the Israelites with the sin of the Golden Calf. That in fact, it was because he felt such shame and remorse for his past sinful actions that he was chosen to become the High Priest in the first place. That’s a good explanation.

The S’fat Emet has another understanding. A brilliant insight: He said that, instead of understanding Aharon as having been chosen because he felt ashamed, read it “aderaba,” read it just the opposite way : that the goal of having been chosen to be High Priest was “lizchut lavo l’y’dei booshah,” “so that he could merit feeling shame!” What?! Why would shame ever be something to be merited? Why would anyone or anything set as a goal--as a reward--to have the experience of shame?! But, indeed, says the Sfat Emet, shame is the reward! And it’s not just Aharon who deserves the reward of shame—it’s all of Israel: As the Talmud (Nedarim 20a) says, “Mi she’ain lo boshet,” “He who has no shame,” “b’yadua shelo amdu raglei avoteinu al har Sinai,” “then it is certain that our ancestors did NOT stand at Mount Sinai.” And, explains the Sfat Emet, Aharon’s sense of shame was so deep—this is the token of his true perfection! And so, for the Sfat Emet and for the rabbis of the Talmud, shame is good!

Gevalt ! we might say to such an idea! If there’s anything we have come to understand in our modern idiom, it’s that shame is a pernicious and destructive feeling. We know that guilt is neurotic enough, but shame is of an altogether deeper order of suffering. Shame is the feeling of “I am loathsome! I am disgusting! I deserve only the worst.” Shame is what survivors of abuse must struggle with on a daily basis. Shame is the horrific stumbling block that fuels the fire of all kinds of addictions and substance abuse. Shame is what obliterates a human being’s sense of self esteem and joy, and it can destroy a person’s ability to live a full and loving life. If there’s anything we all know, it’s that shame is NOT good! …Aderaba--quite the contrary--says the Sfat Emet. Shame really CAN BE good….!

There’s a story told of how once, Reb Yisrael of Ruzhin listened to a Hasid of Reb Moshe Zvi of Savran extol the virtues of his teacher. “My teacher, Reb Moshe, “ said the Hasid “is a man of deep humility. Even the slightest sign of honor given to him would make him question his own worth. He never thinks he is worthy!” Then the Hasid paused. He was expecting Reb Yisrael marvel at the humility of his master. But Reb Yisrael said nothing. So, the Hasid went on: “Indeed, there is one town so taken with my rebbe that whenever he visits, the whole town turns out to honor him.” “And this troubles him?” Reb Yisrael asked the Hasid. “Oh yes! Troubles him indeed! First, he would say it was the carriage that they honored, noting its fine construction. Then he would hope it was the horses they honored, marveling at their strength. But in the end he knew it was him they honored. He would worry over the vanity of humankind to the point of making himself sick. He would actually vomit from all the fuss made over him!”

“Oy, nebbich!” Reb Yisrael exclaimed. “This poor fellow! Could he not find a better way to deal with honor than to vomit?! There is a simple method: to receive all honor and yet to be attached to none of it. It wasn’t the honor that caused our dear brother to vomit; it was his own obsession with honor![i]

This story points us in the direction of understanding why and how our sages could possibly make the claim that shame itself is good. In our story, it seems to the Hasid that Reb Moshe is such a great man because he behaves with such humility. ‘Oh, it’s not little old me that you honor—it’s the carriage, the horses!’ Reb Yisrael is right in saying that what’s actually sickening is that he only seems humble, but he’s not. Reb Moshe is actually self-obsessed! What is sickening is to act humbly, but within our heart of hearts to lack True Shame!...

One more story: Reb Aharon of Karlin visted his rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch, as often as he could. Returning home from one such visit, Reb Aharon was besieged by a great crowd of friends and fellow Hasidim. “Tell us what you have learned, Reb Aharon,” they cried. “Tell us what you have learned!” When the crowd great quiet, that all might hear what Reb Ahraon would impart to them, he said “I learned nothing.” Not sure they understood him, his friends asked again, “What did you learn from the great Maggid?” Again, Reb Aharon waited for silence. Again he said, “Nothing.” Certain that Reb Aharon was denying them some great teaching, his friends said sarcastically, “So you bother to make these many trips to Mezritch so that you can learn nothing?” “Exactly,” said Reb Aharon. “I gained the knowledge that I am nothing.”[ii]

And that’s it: when the Sfat Emet teaches that the great reward of the Priesthood is shame, he means this very message: the knowledge that “I am nothing!” From a Jewish perspective, there is actually such a thing as ‘healthy shame.’ Unhealthy shame is the shame that you and I hate: it’s self-loathing, it’s living with a message that “I am bad.” Healthy shame, however, is the experience of true humility, experienced from the inside-out: it’s living with the message of “I am nothing at all.” The “self” that I cherish, that I’m obsessed with, ultimately, in the face of the Other, is nothing at all! It’s the deepest possible kind of insight and knowledge--that there is, in fact, no barrier between me and you. So in actuality, when the rabbis talk of ‘booshah’ or a healthy kind of shame, they don’t really mean ‘shame’ in the way we use the term. What they really mean is the experience of living with True Selflessness.

In the Mishnah, our ancient sages teach us, “Al t’hiyu ka’avadim ham’shamshim et haRav al m’nat lekabel p’ras,” “Be not like servants who serve their Master in order to receive a reward.” “Elah, havu ka’avadim ham’shamshim et haRav shelo al m’nat lekabel p’ras,” “Rather, be like servants who serve their Master NOT in order to receive a reward.” (Avot 1:3). It’s a teaching all about unconditional service, of course. The Sfat Emet, however, points out that the teaching could have simply said: “Do not serve in order to receive a reward.” But instead, it says don’t serve the Master in order to receive a reward. Why? It’s in order to emphasize the fact that even the act of service itself is NEVER about you! It’s all about the Master, about God, about the One you’re serving—you are nothing in that equation, you are simply the agent of the service itself.

What does this really mean? It’s the difference between the commonly accepted notion of “charity” and the Jewish concept of “Tzedakah.” You are walking down the street. A homeless person asks you if you can spare any change. It’s an act of charity if you decide to act out of the goodness of ‘your’ heart, if you ‘take pity’ on the homeless person and give them alms. And then, once you have given, you feel a sense of self-congratulatory satisfaction because you have done a good deed. That’s a good thing to do, of course! Tzedakah, on the other hand, is altogether deeper. Tzedakah flows from that feeling of True Selflessness: a homeless person asks for money. God has seen fit to open the whole universe before you in that moment—as a moment of righting a wrong, of fixing a tear in the fabric of Creation itself by moving the change in my pocket, into my hand, and then moving my hand toward the hand of one who truly needs that change: who am I to stand in the way of God’s infinite compassion acting through me in that instant! This is Tzedakah, and this is True Selflessness!

This Selflessness is also the difference between conventional notions of ‘forgiveness’ and the Jewish idea of T’shuvah: In an act of forgiveness “I” am the one who is forgiving you. In my kind-heartedness, I am deciding to extend to you my pardon despite what I feel you have done to me. Forgiveness is a wonderful thing to do. But in all of that, we are still self-absorbed. There is no true ‘Selflessness.’ But in T’shuvah, I have Returned from my self-obsession, back to the realization that I am Nothing in the face of the Other. And so, I stand in your presence, not even separate from you. I stand in Your Presence as one not defined by past angers and hurts and judgments—only as one prepared to do right by you Now; to show you compassion Now just exactly as you are, without any story from my past projected onto your life.

At that poignant moment, when Moses sees that his brother Aharon is too ashamed to come forward, Moses says “Zeh hadavar asher tzivah Adonay ta’asu v’yera Aleichem k’vod Adonay,” Aharon: “This is the thing that God has commanded you to do that the Glory of God may appear to you.” In a sense, Moses is saying: You have merited this knowledge that you are Nothing before the people, and because of this, the Glory of God can now appear to us all! Remember what the Sfat Emet said: Aharon was chosen for the priesthood that he might be rewarded with shame. Don’t serve the Master to receive a reward, rather serve the Master NOT to receive a reward—say the ancient sages. So the great irony of life is that, when we give up seeking to take the reward for ourselves, when we embrace that Selflessness—that Knowledge that I am Nothing—that “Shame” becomes the greatest Reward there can ever be. It is only when we come to live knowing that we are here ONLY to serve—that all Honor, all Glory, all the Majesty of this miraculous universe can finally flow through us. Like Aharon the High Priest before us, we can, once and for all become Nothing but a vessel for Holiness: for compassion and justice and Love moving out through our hand, through our actions, through every fiber of our Being, flowing out to all those who need our Presence, our Service, our Love. May we indeed come to merit the blessing of True Selflessness, and through us, may we bring about the Glory of a healed world.

[i] Adapted from Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales. Woodstock, VT.Skylight Illuminations, 2004. p. 43.

[ii] Ibid, p. 61.


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