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Yom Kippur 5780 - Daring Greatly: The Role of Shame and Guilt in the Avodah

10/10/2019 04:10:15 PM

Oct10

Maharat Ruth Friedman

As a child and young adult I struggled with the High Holiday liturgy. First, a strong rebellious streak made me resentful of authority, so the high holidays and I were like oil and water. On the three days a year that I was non-negotiably present in shul I found myself growing increasingly annoyed at having to be there. I silently rolled my eyes at unetaneh tokef - do we REALLY believe that God decrees who lives and who dies? No one can possibly buy that. At musaf I wondered - do we really believe that God is our king? We live in a democracy that looks down on monarchies as outdated forms of government. Our society has been designed to ensure that no one being has sole authority over us, so why are we suddenly praising this dynamic with God and offering up ourselves to God’s mercy? I struggled similarly with ideas of being forced to admit my wrongdoings. I didn’t do anything wrong! And if I have I certainly don’t want to ADMIT to it! The more the liturgy emphasized the relationship of God as being in a position of control, and us of being God’s subjects, the more agitated I became. In my mind I was standing in shul with my hip cocked to one side, my arms folded, glaring. Much like a stubborn teenager I spent musaf trying to assert my own autonomy and remind myself that no one out there in control of my fate.

As I have transitioned to adulthood, that rebellious streak has faded. I no longer find myself rolling my eyes during musaf, wondering if anyone actually believes a word they’re saying. I have learned to appreciate that this liturgy of God as the Supreme Ruler is one expression of how our sages wanted to impress upon the severity of the day. Rather than stand there with my arms folded, I feel moved as I consider how some Jews have related to the Almighty and the reality of our vulnerable existence. I have been able to move my high holiday experience past the literal words on the page, and I spend Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur feeling much more at peace with myself than I did as a teenager.  But I realize that there still is one part of my teenage experience that I still struggle with, and that is the role that shame plays in our liturgy. 

Shame is defined as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Contemporary psychologist Brene Brown distinguishes shame from guilt. Guilt is “I did something bad,” whereas shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is the ability to admit that we did something wrong without having it dominate our sense of self. Shame occurs when that guilt mutates and consumes our entire sense of self, and as she notes, can lead a person down a spiral of anxiety and depression. 

Guilt plays a large role in the Yom Kippur liturgy. We strike our chests and say אשמנו - we have sinned. That is guilt, because we do not say “we are sinners” - sinning does not encompass our entire being. However, there is shame built into the liturgy. After the individual vidui, we say that we are “like a vessel filled with shame and disgrace.” That is not guilt - that is explicitly shame, both in wording and that it defines us as a person. Brene Brown refers to shame as the “swamp lane of the soul” - it does terrible things to our sense of self, and leads to self-destructive behaviors. We find shame deeply uncomfortable, which is part of why I rejected the liturgy earlier on in my life.

Today I wanted to consider the role that guilt and shame play in the avodah service, the Yom Kippur service in the beit hamikdash that we discuss during the Yom Kippur musaf. It is a time when the Kohen Gadol publicly admits the guilt of himself, the kohanim, and of the people. Shame is ostensibly absent. But first, I wanted to consider the other time that guilt is handled publicly in the beit hamikdash - the case of the sotah.

The sotah is a woman whose husband suspects her of being adulterous. If there were witnesses and warnings then she would be prosecuted according to the law. But in this case he just suspects her, so she is brought to the Kohen Gadol who writes curses on a parchment, mixes it with water, and makes her drink the water. If she is guilty then her body morphs grotesquely. If she is innocent then she gets pregnant, and goes back to her husband (though the text does not acknowledge the emotional strain this would case on the marriage!)

Based solely on the biblical material, this ritual is unpleasant at best. But if we look to the mishna it becomes much worse. First, we must note that the rabbis in the mishna greatly limit the circumstances under which this ritual would exist - it becomes basically impossible for it to ever happen, and the mishna does teach us that the ritual fell out of practice very early on. But rather than then close the door on the conversation, the mishna goes into a detailed explanation of what the ritual entails. In the Torah the Kohen uncovers her hair; in the mishna, he exposes her entire torso. She is shamed and ridiculed, and everyone who wants to watch is invited to the beit hamikdash to do so. It’s quite disturbing, and it is written as though it were a shame fantasy - a woman suspected of committing adultery is disturbingly exposed and mocked in the town square. While it may not have existed in reality, this ritual is alive and well in the rabbinic imagination, and represents the worst parts of how shame can govern human behavior.

With that in mind, we now return to the Yom Kippur avodah - the second time that guilt is confessed in public. The nation has gathered at the Beit HaMikdash on Yom Kippur to witness the Kohen Gadol’s service to God to atone for their sins. The Torah tells us that before the Kohen Gadol would perform expiation on behalf of the people, he first had to “make expiation for himself and for his household.” (Leviticus 16:6) The mishna expands this to a bigger confession that we may remember from our recitation of the avodah every year אנא ה’! חטאתי….  “Please, ‘Hashem’! I have done wrong, I have transgressed, I have sinned before You, I and my house. Please, ‘Hashem’! Forgive the wrongdoings, the transgressions, the sins which I have committed and transgressed and sinned before You, I and my house.” He would do this once for himself and his family, and once for all of the kohanim. This is a pretty mature and admirable demonstration of the ability to admit guilt - all of Israel had gathered at the Beit HaMikdash to hope that the Kohen Gadol’s service would be successful in expiating them of their sin, and first they witness their leader admit his own guilt, and then proceed with the service. The sotah seems to be on one extreme, representing the horrors of shame and the human desire to inflict shame on others, while the Yom Kippur avodah service represents the other healthy extreme of leaders being able to express guilt and then continue their work.

So where does this dichotomy leave us? I would think that many of us are somewhere in between those two; not consumed with shame, but also unable to always admit guilt and move on [though if you do find yourself struggling with shame I am always here to talk or help connect you with resources. No one should have to live like that, and you do not deserve it.] What do we do when we do feel shame? How can we engage with our process of teshuva knowing that we are not immune to feeling shame over what we have done?

That brings me to the inspiration for my drasha today - a new song by an Israeli musician named Ishay Ribo called “Seder HaAvodah.” He released this song a few weeks ago, and it quickly went viral in Israel, amongst both religious and secular communities. In it he imagines the avodah - not through the lens of an outsider, as it is told in the mishna, but he tells it through the perspective of the Kohen Gadol himself. 

As we said, in the Torah and mishna the avodah is told through the lens of an observer. We see our religious leader, who has been prepared and pampered for days leading up to Yom Kippur arrive at the beit hamikdash in his priestly clothing, and perform a service. We’re thinking about our own anxiety over whether he will be successful, but there is an implicit confidence in him as our leader. However, Ribo imagines the day through the eyes of the Kohen Gadol. How did the Kohen Gadol feel as he began the avodah that day, knowing that his own fate and the fate of his people rested on his shoulders? Ribo imagines that as the Kohen Gadol began the first confession, he was overwhelmed by all of the sins he had done that year, and started to feel ashamed because of his actions. As he is reciting the confession, on the inside he is questioning his ability to actually carry it out, and he quickly descends to a dark place. And what jars him out of that place of shame is hearing the people call out “Baruch shem kevod malchuto l’olam va’ed!” “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever!” And then, Ribo imagines, the counting of the sprinkles of the blood that we will recite in the avodah was actually the Kohen Gadol recounting to himself all of the different ways that God is kind and merciful. By remembering this aspect of God, the Kohen Gadol is able to ascend from the place of shame and regain his confidence. This climaxes at the end of the song with the song Mar’eh Kohen. Traditionally we think of this song as representing our joy at the Kohen Gadol’s success in executing the avodah. However, Ribo reframes it to be about the Kohen Gadol’s own sense of relief at having emerged from his place of shame and succeeded in the day’s service.

Brene Brown does a lot of work with corporate leadership and executives about vulnerability, and she talks about how as a society we are uncomfortable when our leaders show vulnerability. If someone admits they were wrong we see that as a weakness, not a strength. But as she argues, that is because we see vulnerability as being rooted in shame, and an inability to confront our own guilt. She coaches leaders on how to make themselves vulnerable - to dare greatly - and to overcome their shame. This involves being able to accept one’s own shortcomings, and one’s own fears. And if our leaders are able to model this behavior for us, they can not only create healthier work environments, but they will also inspire those around them to follow suit.

Ribo’s piece serves as a modern Midrash on the avodah. He reminds us that everyone, even the Kohen Gadol, can become overwhelmed by the process of teshuva and feel ashamed by their actions. And if we isolate ourselves in that shame it will only get worse; after all, the Kohen is only lifted out of that shame once he hears the nation respond to his words by saying Baruch Shem Kevod, and by remembering God’s kindness. And then he is able to continue in his process of admitting his own guilt and successfully atoning for his own sins and those of the nation. 

This is a beautiful model of teshuva for us today, and one that we are sorely lacking. As a society we are really good at shame. We are slow to forgive people who are wrong. Politicians are referred to as flip-floppers if they change their minds over the course of their career. A Facebook post someone made 15 years ago can tarnish their reputation for life. We know how to find something wrong with someone and have it become their defining feature forever. What we are not so good at is guilt. We haven’t really figured out how to make space for others to admit their mistakes, apologize, and grow. I have been especially disappointed with some of our political leaders in the past years, who, when confronted with a disturbing story of their past, have worked to deny it and discredit the accuser rather than acknowledge their mistakes and serve as a role model for the rest of us for how to grow as people rather than always expect perfection.

The mishna’s avodah service serves as a beautiful model of how a leader can confess his own guilt without allowing himself to be overcome with shame. Ribo’s interpretation serves as a dose of gentle reality by acknowledging that many of us, including the Kohen Gadol, aren’t fully at a place of guilt and no shame. His piece reminds us that if we want to be able to move from an unhealthy place of shame to a healthy place of guilt, we must enlist each other’s help. And so as we stand here during musaf and beat our chests, enumerating all of our sins, many of us may become overwhelmed, like the Kohen Gadol, and start to go into a bad place. But we should also remember that we are all engaged in this process together, and just like the nation and God are able to lift the Kohen Gadol out of the shame spiral, so too the role that we play in each other’s teshuva is reminding one another that it is ok to make mistakes. The key is to be able to admit our own guilt, and welcome others for doing the same. As Brown reminds us, that is the true key for personal growth. Gmar tov.

Sources:

Leviticus 16:6
וְהִקְרִ֧יב אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־פַּ֥ר הַחַטָּ֖את אֲשֶׁר־ל֑וֹ וְכִפֶּ֥ר בַּעֲד֖וֹ וּבְעַ֥ד בֵּיתֽוֹ׃
Aaron is to offer his own bull of sin offering, to make expiation for himself and for his household.

Mishna: 3:8, 4:2
בָּא לוֹ אֵצֶל פָּרוֹ, וּפָרוֹ הָיָה עוֹמֵד בֵּין הָאוּלָם וְלַמִּזְבֵּחַ, רֹאשׁוֹ לַדָּרוֹם וּפָנָיו לַמַּעֲרָב, וְהַכֹּהֵן עוֹמֵד בַּמִּזְרָח וּפָנָיו לַמַּעֲרָב, וְסוֹמֵךְ שְׁתֵּי יָדָיו עָלָיו וּמִתְוַדֶּה. וְכָךְ הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אָנָּא הַשֵּׁם, עָוִיתִי פָּשַׁעְתִּי חָטָאתִי לְפָנֶיךָ אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי. אָנָּא הַשֵּׁם, כַּפֶּר נָא לָעֲוֹנוֹת וְלַפְּשָׁעִים וְלַחֲטָאִים, שֶׁעָוִיתִי וְשֶׁפָּשַׁעְתִּי וְשֶׁחָטָאתִי לְפָנֶיךָ אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי, כַּכָּתוּב בְּתוֹרַת משֶׁה עַבְדֶּךָ (ויקרא טז), כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְיָ תִּטְהָרוּ. וְהֵן עוֹנִין אַחֲרָיו, בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד:
He came to his bull and his bull was standing between the Ulam and the altar, its head to the south and its face to the west. And the priest stands on the eastside facing the west. And he lays both his hands upon it and confesses. And thus he would say: “Please, ‘Hashem’! I have done wrong, I have transgressed, I have sinned before You, I and my house. Please, ‘Hashem’! Forgive the wrongdoings, the transgressions, the sins which I have committed and transgressed and sinned before You, I and my house, as it is written in the torah of Moses Your servant: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you [to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord”] (Leviticus 16:30). And they answered after him: “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever!”

קָשַׁר לָשׁוֹן שֶׁל זְהוֹרִית בְּרֹאשׁ שָׂעִיר הַמִּשְׁתַּלֵּחַ וְהֶעֱמִידוֹ כְנֶגֶד בֵּית שִׁלּוּחוֹ, וְלַנִּשְׁחָט כְּנֶגֶד בֵּית שְׁחִיטָתוֹ. בָּא לוֹ אֵצֶל פָּרוֹ שְׁנִיָּה, וְסוֹמֵךְ שְׁתֵּי יָדָיו עָלָיו וּמִתְוַדֶּה. וְכָךְ הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אָנָּא הַשֵּׁם, עָוִיתִי פָּשַׁעְתִּי חָטָאתִי לְפָנֶיךָ אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי וּבְנֵי אַהֲרֹן עַם קְדוֹשֶׁיךָ. אָנָּא הַשֵּׁם, כַּפֶּר נָא לָעֲוֹנוֹת וְלַפְּשָׁעִים וְלַחֲטָאִים, שֶׁעָוִיתִי וְשֶׁפָּשַׁעְתִּי וְשֶׁחָטָאתִי לְפָנֶיךָ אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי וּבְנֵי אַהֲרֹן עַם קְדוֹשֶׁךָ, כַּכָּתוּב בְּתוֹרַת משֶׁה עַבְדֶּךָ (ויקרא טז), כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְיָ תִּטְהָרוּ. וְהֵן עוֹנִין אַחֲרָיו, בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד:
He bound a thread of crimson wool on the head of the goat which was to be sent away, and he placed it at the gate where it was later to be sent away, and on the goat that was to be slaughtered [he placed a thread of crimson wool on its neck] at the place of the slaughtering. He came to his bull a second time, pressed his two hands upon it and made confession. And thus he would say: “Please, ‘Hashem’! I have done wrong, I have transgressed, I have sinned before You, I and my house and the sons of Aaron Your holy people. Please, ‘Hashem’! Forgive the wrongdoings, the transgressions, the sins which I have committed and transgressed and sinned before You, I and my house and the sons of Aaron Your holy people, as it is written in the torah of Moses Your servant: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you [to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord”] (Leviticus 16:30). And they answered after him: “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever!”

Fri, November 22 2019 24 Cheshvan 5780