Tuesday, August 30, 2011


In the news, whether politics, current events, or celebrity following, “shame” seems to be the word. People seem to have lost the ability to discuss or debate an event or topic, or plainly just refuse. When we see celebrity news in even limited amounts, it tends toward the use of drugs, relationship failure, threats of jail, or drunkenness. It titillates. Not so much is even made of who won an award or their work as a whole.

Even much has been made of shame in child rearing. I can’t tell you how many times as a teacher I have heard variations of the theme that all ‘so and so’ really needed was a ‘kick in the pants’. When in truth, most of the time children who needed the most guidance had very clearly been kicked enough.

The Rabbis say, “Whoever shames his fellow person in public has no share in the world to come. He is one of those who will go down to Gehinnom and never come up again.” Shame is, of course, closely related to Lashon Hora.

“Shaming” is described as a “whitening of the face.” Can someone die of embarrassment? It seems unlikely, however, because of the comparison of the blood draining from the face and causing the person to go pale as well as the damage to their reputation in the community, shaming is compared to murder.

Leviticus 19:17 tells us, “You shall surely rebuke thy neighbour, and not bear sin because of him.” Notice that it doesn’t say you should shame him, nor does it say you should talk about him to the general public. His errors should not be expounded upon, or speculated upon, and certainly not for entertainment purposes or to further a cause. It does not say, either, that he is answerable to you. Rashi’s interpretation is that we are to have a stand against sin, but not shame the sinner. This sounds like a delicate balance.

One example of how this may be achieved is the story of Tamar who recounts the pledge she had from her father-in–law, Judah, but not that they had had relations. Another example is when Joseph revieled himself to his brothers in Egypt. He did this without on lookers and only out of absolute necessity. His brothers had sold him into slavery only after abandoning a plot to kill him, so if he wanted to shame them, he clearly had a lot to work with. So did Tamar. Tamar’s relationship with Judah resulted in a pregnacy. Aditionally, she had the proof of the belongings he had left behind and the rather scandulious fact that he had mistaken her for a ‘harlot’.

There once was a beautiful custom of woman wearing borrowed clothes on Yom Kippur when unmarried men would be looking for brides. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said, "… the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such.” Given the current economy, perhaps this is worth remembering. Further, we are also not allowed to speak ill, even of the dead. "One who shames those who sleep in the dust has also committed a grave sin."

We know that it is human nature to measure a person against our own yardstick, and since they are not us, find them wanting. How quick are we to ‘tell some home truths’ once we are angry? How anxious to pontificate about someone’s perceived shortcomings, especially when things don’t go our way? How hasty are we in joining in? But the parameters are clear. We are not to shame someone for being not as smart or not as wealthy or not as educated, as we would like him or her to be. We are not to shame people for owing us money, past offences, ancestry, or personal weakness. There are rules of etiquette built around this, too numerous to name here.

And if we believe that Gehinnom is a spiritual condition, rather than a place, then maybe the point is that shaming someone not only harms the target and both their reputation and connection to the community, but we harm ourselves, spiritually and socially, when we undertake these behaviors. And that’s a shame.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Are you talking to ME?

“Are you talking to me? Are you talking to ME?” who can forget this famous line forged by the character of Travis Bikle of Taxi Driver fame. They have been repeated over and over in comedic content and in drama. How often in writing do we see ourselves, and wonder that? So many stage plays and novels begin with a standard disclaimer of denial of real persons, places, or things. Good writing, we are told is universal; it appeals to a wider audience and holds some agreed upon, universal truths that speak to us all.

And aren’t Drushas, in part, good writing? Or at least good speaking? I have had some of my best conversations of the week just outside of out Shul because of the Rabbi’s Drusha. I have even asked myself, sometimes kidding and some times less so, if the Drusha was about me. Is he talking about me being… impatient? Judgmental? Unkind? Might I have treated someone unfairly? Some might find this type of introspection upsetting.

It was recently remarked to me that ‘people want uplifting messages’ and that maybe true. But is really the job of a good Rabbi to make us all only feel good about ourselves? And is he responsible for any discomfort people experience at all?

Judaism has specific rules for specific situations and though some customs change from place to place the rules do not. Nor does custom ever replace the rules. It is the job of a spiritual advisor to let you know about these rules. Try not to shoot the messenger. Every discussion, like every pancake, has two sides. For example, when there is a dispute about how something should be done and the Rabbi tells everyone what the rules are, there is always going to be a ‘side’ that didn’t get what he or she wants. I repeat, try not to shoot the messenger. And don’t ask your friends to shoot him either. Rabbis don’t just arbitrarily make up rules. And they DO have to be sure the rules are followed in the synagogue. It is up to you to decide to follow them in your own life.

The Rabbi often reminds us a this time of year, with the High Holiday on the horizon, that it is human nature to easily turn a critical eye toward our fellow man, but difficult, at best, for us to aim that all seeing lens at ourselves.

So, to be clear, he is talking to you…maybe through some universal truth, maybe by offering to educate you on some rule or custom you hadn’t known about, or maybe by giving you the means to become more introspective. But you cannot really hold any one other human being responsible for your internal dialogue or your journey or whatever processes you are going through. He can offer support and spiritual guidance.

The Torah is about behavior-and the Drusha is about the Torah, if it makes you regard your own behavior with a critical lens then perhaps it is not about you personally, but IT IS ABOUT YOU because it speaks to you. And that makes it a really good Drusha.