On Shame: Parasha Shemini

Leviticus 9:7

by Nancy Coren

April 10, 2021

Several years ago I had a conversation with an individual who had been accepted into the Chaplaincy Corps for the City of Lincoln.  He had been admitted based on his background check, letters of recommendation, past experience working as a spiritual leader, and his interview by a board of chaplains and members of the police department and fire department.  Yet he expressed his fear of assuming his first duty day. It frightened him that he might not be up to the challenge of what he might face at any given crisis situation. In fact, he held back from signing up for his first month of duty due to his discomfort.

That conversation reminded me a bit of a section in this week’s parasha, Shemini.

In Leviticus 9:7 we read, “Come near to the altar and offer your sin offering and your burnt offering and make atonement for yourself and the people; sacrifice the offering that is for the people and make atonement for them, as the Lord has commanded.”

This statement was made by Moshe to Aharon.  Why did Moses have to ask Aharon who was the kohen gadol, the chief priest, to come near to the altar?  Why was Aharon not moving forward on his own to fulfill his role for the community?

In his commentary on this verse, Rashi offers the following explanation: Aaron was ashamed and fearful of approaching the altar so Moses said to him: “Why are you ashamed? It was for this that you were chosen.”

Rashi states that Aharon felt ashamed.  But why?  Perhaps he felt ashamed for assuming the role of the kohen gadol after his involvement with the molten calf.  When Moshe had gone up the mountain to receive the Law and Aharon was left in the encampment, he was an active participant in the grave sin that took place. In one recounting of the incident found in Exodus 32:2-3, Aharon told the people who were restless waiting for Moshe to return, to bring him their golden earrings and then he formed the molten calf from them. He also built an altar for the calf.

Perhaps his recognition of his own faults led him to stay back from the altar when he needed to make atonement for the sins of the people.  Perhaps that sense of inadequacy was what led him to need to be reminded to “come near to the altar.”

Yet, Moshe’s response in Rashi’s explanation is also very telling.  “Why are you ashamed?  It was for this that you were chosen.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, wrote about Moses’ response. He saw Moses’ statement as one that acknowledged that Aharon understood what it was like to sin, what it was like to feel guilt. In other words, it was Aharon who understood the need for repentance and atonement because of his own past actions.  Rabbi Sacks points out that Aharon’s greatest weakness would become his greatest strength.

From a Torah perspective, Aharon wasn’t lacking self-esteem when he hesitated to draw close to the altar. He was being humble and his humility is seen as a positive quality for any leader to possess. It is why Moshe who stuttered and felt he was inadequate to go before Pharoah was seen as a great prophet and why David who was merely a shepherd boy could fulfill the role of being a king.   In essence, Judaism recognizes that we all struggle, that we all have weaknesses with which we can work to turn them into our greatest strengths.

I think many of my non-Jewish friends would say it this way:  Just have faith in G-d and it will work out for you…you can be strong.  I think Judaism would rephrase it in the following way:  G-d has faith in your ability to change, to work hard to follow paths of justice and righteousness even when you lack faith in yourself.  As Rabbi Sacks wrote, “The  mystery at the heart of Judaism is not our faith in God. It is God’s faith in us.”

If we listen to this message contained in a simple verse in Shemini, we can learn that understanding our imperfections and working to improve them is far better than thinking we are perfect. If we recognize that G-d has faith in us to meet difficult situations, then we can pursue the struggles and challenges we face with the feeling that we need not be frightened by them.  We can move closer…step out of our comfort zone….and we need not be ashamed that perhaps we are not perfect.  Perhaps our past experiences and the insight learned from them will actually lead to our greater successes.

The Response

by Shellen Lubin

Confucius said, “Be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes.”

What do you do after you make a mistake? Try to hide it? Try to save face? Make an excuse or a rationalization so you don't look like you erred, or just so you don't feel like you look like you erred? All we really get from that is the inability to learn from our own life lessons, plus we are forced to live further behind a wall, a mask, further hidden away from other people.

Someone once asked me why I tell stories where I appear foolish, where I've made big stupid blunders. Everyone else hides those stories, tries to forget them, or re-writes them in the telling. I say it keeps me honest, keeps me aware, keeps me accountable, keeps me human. All that and more.

Do I like making mistakes? No, I wouldn't say that. But I’m not willing to give up that piece of myself or the opportunity to make amends, learn from it, do better. Do I like other people making mistakes? No indeed. But I have far greater issue with the lack of ownership, forthcomingness, responsibility I get too often--or worse, their disappearing from my life so they don’t have to face the mistakes at all.

Brennan Manning once wrote "In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others."

This desire--almost craving--for exposure is something I shared with another friend, student, and collaborator who just died on Thursday, Amy Oestreicher, a shining light, a creative force, a body that probably should have given out years ago, but her spirit was so strong, it kept her going, and growing, and creating. She was an average suburban super-talented theatre geek teen when she was groomed and then sexually abused by a beloved and trusted voice teacher. She tried to hide it from everyone and it almost killed her--and it wasn’t even her shame to bear, it was his, but he called it love. And the destruction that abuse and that secret wreaked on her body is why she’s gone now, never making it to age 34, which is what she would have been today. Yes, today would have been her 34th birthday.

So here is what I want to say:

Own everything. Everything you are and have been. Everything you are doing and have done. Everything that has been done to you and required of you. Own it all.

It's the only way to learn, grow, do anything any differently than you've always done it. It’s the only way to be whole, and the only way to find trust in yourself for yourself or anyone else.

As I've said before to more than one person when they needed help with something but wanted other people to think they didn’t and so wanted me to to hide it with them: "I'll save your ass but not your face."

Whatever you hide will own you, run you, destroy you.

Shame itself can even be narcissistic, as it puts us and our behavior at the center of the situation. What good is it to feel guilt or responsibility if it just makes you feel sorry for yourself and doesn’t lead to any kind of amends or change or any positive action? What good would Aaron’s shame have been if it led him to run away, thus giving up the chance to learn, do better, and, ultimately become a great leader.

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending broken pottery by sealing the cracks with gold. The idea is that in embracing flaws and imperfections, the piece is even more unique, artistic, and beautiful.

Rabbi Sacks said that the mystery at the heart of Judaism is not our faith in God, but God’s faith in us. Nancy adds beautifully that her understanding of Judaism is that God has faith in our ability to change, even when we lack that faith. I add that it is that very belief in God’s faith in us to change that gives us strength when all else fails--the faith to face the need to change, what must be changed, our guilt, our responsibility, without so much shame that it cripples us and causes us to take the mistake and turn it into a crime.

Save your ass, not your face.

Or, as Amy put it at the end of her show Passageways, that I directed:

HEAR ME NOW, AS I AM
WITH A LEAK OR A TEAR, CRAP, I DON’T GIVE A DAMN
AS EMERSON SAID, LET YOUR SPIRIT MAKE YOUR BED EVERY SPIRIT BUILDS A HOUSE
AND BEYOND ITS HOUSE A WORLD
AND BEYOND ITS WORLD A HEAVEN UNFURLED SO THEN, IT’S TRUE
THAT THE WORLD EXISTS FOR YOU SO BREATHE
COME BREATHE BREATHE IT IN

Shame, by Shellen Lubin