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Jewish World Review
March 1, 2006
/ 1 Adar, 5766
Rabbi Berel Wein
Knowing how and when to apply the integral trait is key to spiritual and personal growth
One of the three main character attributes that the Talmud ascribed to Jews is a sense of shame, of reticence and embarrassment. The other two are the traits of being merciful and of being kind to others in an active way.
Indeed, the Talmud goes so
far as to say that any Jew who lacks this sense of being ashamed and embarrassed casts doubt as to whether his ancestors truly were present at Mount Sinai for the giving of the Torah (Bible) to Israel.
All of the prophets of Israel decried brazenness, a defiant forehead, the possession of the hide of an elephant. As long as shame existed the possibility for repentance and self-improvement also existed. Therefore the prophets of Israel exhorted the leaders and people to at least "be ashamed of your behavior, O House of Israel!" Only when the sense of shame disappears does hope wane for a change for the better.
Flaunting one's misdeeds and carrying on as though nothing untoward has occurred is a sure sign of the loss of any moral proportion in an individual and in a society. A well-developed and active sense of shame is a defensive wall that protects an individual from inadvertent wrongdoing and moral disasters.
The opposite side of the coin of shame is that of honor and pride. There are things in life that everyone must have a sense of pride and accomplishment at achieving. The prophet tells us that "being wise enough to know G-d, so to speak, is worthy of
high praise and a great sense of honor." Because honor and shame make up the two sides of the same coin, it is obvious that dishonorable behavior should lead one to a sense of deep shame and remorse.
In the culture of the Japanese this led to the ritual suicide of hara-kiri because of loss of honor and the shame that followed this. However, over the last half century, the Western world has pretty much abandoned any sense of shame in public or private behavior. Thus, the current slogan of all malefactors caught in shameful behavior is "to tough it out" and brazenly ignore one's own shameful deeds. There is very little sense of shame left in public or political life, in academia and the arts or even in the religious leadership sectors of our society.
Shame has fled from the scene in the entertainment industries. There is no longer shameful speech or attire, attitude or even behavior. We have no longer any higher expectations of our leaders so therefore they have no sense of shame when they
actually meet our very low expectations of them and their personal and public behavior. The sense of honor and pride so necessary for effective and inspired public leadership has disappeared from our world to be replaced by a crassness and
insensitivity to moral standards and to a traditional sense of selfless purpose.
There are instances when the sense of shame has to be overcome. Not always is it in place. The rabbis of the Mishna warned us that someone who is overly bashful and easily shamed will not be a good student for one will never debate ideas with one's
teachers and colleagues because of this overdeveloped sense of shame. Being a member of a minority, being "different" than everyone else, also engenders a misguided sense of shame and of constant embarrassment at being one's own true self. In this respect there have been changes in the Jewish world generally.
For example, wearing a yarmulke at work, something which was practically unheard of a half century ago, is now easily in vogue. So, apparently it is not only the sense of shame that needs to be with us but a sense of sophistication and instinct that informs us what we should be ashamed of and what should be for us a badge of pride and self-worth and identity. As in all things in life a sense of balance and proportion is vitally necessary when dealing with the coin of shame and honor.
The Jewish sense of shame arises from the realization of G-d's greatness and eternity. We, who are but mortal clay and dust, are automatically filled with a sense of unworthiness when we deal with our eternal Creator. Thus, to the believing Jew, a healthy sense of shame should be innate within one's very being. If it is not present, then there is undoubtedly room for doubt as to the truthfulness of one's professed beliefs.
So our sense of shame also becomes our test of faith. That is why it is so important
to our spiritual development and quest for becoming a better person.
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© 2006, Rabbi Berel Wein