The mythology in Genesis says that God created Adam and Eve and, “They were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” Then, the story says, they ate the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and, “their eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked,” they were ashamed “and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons,” to cover their nakedness.
At first – ‘in the beginning,’ – they were not ‘ashamed.’ Then they became aware – they were conscious of their nakedness; they were embarrassed; they developed the capacity for shame.
So it is: to be human is to have a certain kind of consciousness; not intelligence by itself, but an awareness of one’s capacity for good and evil. The mythology says that God told the man not to eat from that tree, ‘for in the day you eat of it you shall surely die,’ he warned. Later, the serpent tempted Eve but at first she resisted repeating God’s warning: “And the serpent said unto the woman, You shall not surely die; for God knows that in the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
Sure enough, the serpent was right: they ate, and they did not die, but they were evicted from the Garden of Eden, symbolizing the loss of innocence…they knew good and evil, their own and that of others, so they suffered a psychological suffering unique to humans, and this awareness and this suffering is the source of all the religions of the world…offering the promise of salvation or freedom from the pain of guilt and shame.
The High Holy Days in the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, focus on this deeply human issue – the issue of shame, the experience of feeling exposed or vulnerable.
There are lots of Bible stories about shame, from Adam and Eve to Judas, the story of betrayal, to Jonah, the marvelous myth about the human wish to see others suffer for their sins and the inability to forgive – which destroyed Jonah’s spirit…which is to say, the inability to forgive can destroy our spirit.
These stories, as mythology, remind us about what’s happening inside ourselves, and what’s happening around us all the time. It’s reported in newspapers, television and websites every day, and the thoughtful person feels the same things happening in him/herself.
For example, there was a story in the New York Times on Friday about the suicide of Lt. Michael Piggot who gave the order to zap Iman Morales with a Tazer, causing Morales to fall to his death — he was standing on a platform outside of his apartment waving a long fluorescent light bulb; his fall was video recorded by a bystander.
He had climbed out of his apartment window to avoid the police when they knocked on his door in response to a call they got that a man was ranting and raving, having a psychotic break.
Lt. Piggot gave the order to Nicholas Marchesono to zap the naked man. Piggot apologized profusely, acknowledging his mistake; he expressed deep remorse.
He knew there would be an investigation – he knew he would be accused and forced to stand trial. He didn’t want to bring attention to and shame upon his family; rather than go through that pain he ended his life just two hours before Mr. Morales’s funeral.
At the funeral Mr. Morales’s aunt responded to the news of Lt. Piggot’s suicide, saying, “I’m sure he was asking for forgiveness and I’m sure Iman (my nephew) would want us to forgive the Piggot family. I just wish they find peace and healing and trust in life again.”
The names of the characters is this tragic story has marks of mythology: the tazer victim is Iman Morales: I, man, morals. The name of the tazer shooter, who was following orders, is Marcheson – marches on. It’s a story of mythological proportions.
To understand the power of shame, you don’t need to go to the old stories of Jonah or Judas; you don’t even need to go to the current stories in the New York Times. The High Holy Days invite you to go directly to the ‘source’ of shame which sits in the depths of the human soul, or spirit…deep inside each one of us.
We know what shame is about; we know the power of shame; we know about the need for forgiveness, and we know about the power of forgiveness, the blessing of forgiveness, the sense of liberation forgiveness brings to a guilt-ridden soul.
The Bible stories remind us of the Truth – that which we already know about ourselves and one another, reported daily on the evening news, lampooned by Jonathan Stewart on the Daily Show or Saturday Night Live, offering some comic relief to the painful revelations of the tragic side of our human existence—it helps to laugh it off lest it pull us under.
The essence of the High Holy days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is about our need for forgiveness. Many Jews who may not practice their religion in any visible way all year make sure they attend services, both to consciously cleanse the soul and to re-connect with their roots, to be reminded of where they came from and reconnected with their identity.
While forgiveness is the most essential thing, it is also the most complex, difficult ingredient to our human existence. The more I contemplate the many-faceted aspects of forgiveness the less certain I feel about it, and the more important it feels.
Love connects us to others; love reconnects us to others; love connects us to ourselves – our self-respect, and reconnects us to ourselves when we experience soul-shattering times of guilt, shame, embarrassment, regret, resentment and anger.
Things we do or say, or fail to do or say, cause us to feel unconnected, from time to time; unconnected to our better selves and disconnected from one another and from the Source of Life, from God, if you will.
We need to be re-minded that we are children of the universe, as the Desiderata puts it, that we have a ‘right to be here.’
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur suggests that you can start over again. First you have to close the books on the old year, taking a personal inventory, what the twelve-step program calls making “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
Then you have to admit to the exact nature of the wrongs that were wrapped up in the year or years past, and you have to ask forgiveness from people you have wronged.
The Jewish legend says that on Yom Kippur the book of life is opened – the book that contains the names of those who will live through the next year and those who will die.
On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, each person’s fate is decided for the next year, then the book is closed or sealed. The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the “Days of Awe.”
While a sense of shame lives in the heart of what we call ‘being human’ there’s also a sense of awe awakens the heart to that which we call spirituality – we talk about something being awe-inspiring. The old story says that God blew the breath of life into that lump of clay ‘and man became a living soul.’
Thus the phrase ‘Days of Awe’ to describe the High Holy Days; it points to this thing in us that is the seed of religion and the heart of spirituality, the essence of what we call ‘reverence.’
That feeling inspires prayer. Listen, again, to the words of the Native American Chief Yellow Lark:
O Great Spirit whose voice I hear in the winds, and whose breath gives life to all the world, hear me. I come before you one of your many children, I am small and weak, I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty and let my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things you have made, and my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people, the lesson you have hidden in every leaf and rock. I seek strength not to be greater than my brother but to fight my greatest enemy, myself. Make me ever ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes so that when life fades as a fading sunset my spirit may come to you without shame.
The phrase, “I am small and weak” is a statement of humility; and it concludes with the Yom Kippur phrase: ‘Make me ever ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes so that when life fades as a fading sunset my spirit may come to you without shame.’
Reverence and awe open the door to a return to innocence, as described in the book of Genesis ‘before the fall,’ before they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
There’s an intricate interplay between feelings of shame, awe and reverence.
The current crisis on Wall Street has been blamed on greed, but that’s like Jonah pointing his finger at the people of Ninevah who he was sent to ‘bail out.’ Blaming our economic crisis on greed is an over simplification – not that there isn’t some truth to it. But a certain amount of the thing people call greed in others is built in to our survival mechanism – making sure we have enough food, for example, and an adequate shelter. Determination to get enough food can lead to life-threatening gluttony; the need for shelter can lead to taking out a big mortgage with a temporarily low interest rate on an over-sized house, leading to foreclosure.
There is something natural and necessary about a sense of shame; we need to understand it so that we can keep it under control and not destroy us, as it did to Lt. Piggot!
Popularized psychology and new age religion, including our own, sometimes suggests that we can and should do away with shame, that shame and guilt serves no useful purpose. But shame is not a disease or defect. Quite the opposite, it is a sign of our humanity!
Obviously shame and guilt can be repressive. Too much shame and guilt can hold us down and take away a sense of self-respect.
The Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, go straight to the core of what it means to be human; the human need for a new beginning, a new year, a chance to clean the slate and begin again and again. A new beginning requires coming to terms with the old year, or years, so the High Holy days call on us to forgive those who have offended us, or hurt us, or disappointed us, and to make amends with those we may have offended, or hurt or disappointed, even if the offense was unintentional; without it we can’t find the forgiveness we need in ourselves.
There’s a High Holy Day prayer asking forgiveness of those we may have offended but don’t realize it, because they never told us! We know we can offend others without intending it, so we know that others have been offended without our ever realizing it – certainly those of us who occupy pulpits know about that.