Bereshit 5783 – Reconciling Shame

By: Michael Carr

One of the many stories in Bereshit is that of Adam and Eve. In particular it is the shame that Adam and Eve experience upon eating the forbidden fruit. Rabbi Manis Friedman, co-author of “Living a Life that Matters” relates Adam and Eve’s emotional response to these three aspects of shame: 1) humility, embarrassment and guilt.

Following the deed of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve experience the feeling of humility, the first of three parts of shame. This was distinguished by their awe of and bifurcation from G-d.  The almighty G-d was a much larger, omnipotent and universal, presence than Adam and Eve which created a foundation of humbleness and resulted in a ‘spiritual separation’ from G-d.

The second aspect of shame, their feeling of embarrassment due to exposure, was uncomfortable and resulted in vulnerability and fear causing them to seek out ‘fig leaf gear’.  Let us also remember that thousands of years later the Talmud would set the record straight about the act of embarrassment towards others as the equivalent of murder.

Embarrassment occurs when a norm or ‘boundary’ is violated. For most of us walking around daily in clothing is a norm we observe in public. Of course our private lives are, well, private. Adam and Eve realize this immediately once their ‘eyes become open’ after eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Their modesty strengthens as they grab the fig leafs due to their need for privacy and desire for recapturing their innocence.

Rabbi Friedman believes guilt is a third aspect of shame. This builds upon the emotional experience for Adam and Eve following their snack from the Tree of Knowledge. This is emotional guilt rather than the act of guilt for say an unlawful behavior.

According to Rabbi Friedman, guilt is the result of a broken or damaged relationship. In the context of Adam and Eve’s relationship with G-d, they did not violate nor not follow a commandment. They basically ignored the ‘commander’. Today, some may feel they have violated a spiritual trust with G-d by failing to follow the law of Torah. One of our recourses is seeking absolution through repentance during the high holidays to clear our conscience for peace of mind. But how do we achieve repentance?

Did G-d forgive Adam and Eve for their transgression? Well yes and no.

It is not exactly and clearly laid out for us aside from the humility that they adopted and the embarrassment they shielded themselves from with the fig leafs.  We do know about the punishment G-d imposed for Cain and Able (their son’s).  So if Adam and Eve were to repair their relationship with G-d what might it have looked like?

The topic of shame is dynamic and complex. Rabbi Friedman’s explanation of shame has been condensed and hopefully simplified for today’s D’var. Perhaps, according to Rabbi Friedman’s definition/explanation of shame, it would have gone something like this:

1) G-d says to Adam and Eve – “I realize you are feeling rather small  humbled and fragile – which is actually a really healthy way to feel after this transgression and that is OK and acceptable;

2) “Secondly”, G-d states, “I get that you feel rather embarrassed over this situation since you have awakened from a perfect world I created just for you before you ate from the Tree of Knowledge due to a false narrative provided by the serpent. I also realize that you believe your privacy was ignored, disregarded and deemed unimportant. You attempted to get that back through the fig leafs and your desire for modesty and most importantly the feeling of privacy”;

3) “Finally”, G-d might have said, “you are experiencing a sense of guilt feelings. You feel despair, unworthy, estranged and alienated specifically over our relationship.  You obviously feel your innocence has been lost and your also wondering if I, the almighty G-d, will accept you for your imperfections and the free will you have exceeded.  It’s clear our relationship needs to be strengthened. So here’s what we need to do. 

If you, ask me, G-d, to forgive you for your transgressions, and accept you the way you are, I will do so. By seeking this repentance, and receiving my acceptance, you will become innocent, whole, emotionally un-violated and healed once again”.

In summary, Rabbi Friedman believes the correct application of repentance will work to repair damaged relationships with those we love whether G-d or another person.  In accomplishing this we need to regain the innocence we had prior to the damaged relationship. Humility, embarrassment and guilt are the path that can get us there and the vulnerability of shame is the road that leads us back to our innocence.

In this new year may we all return once again to our innocence and remember our need for acceptance and forgiveness for ourselves and others. Also may we have a new year where we see and understand others the way we would like to be seen and understood. Good Shabbos!