Our tradition is extremely critical of those who embarrass others, likening the deplorable deed to the heinous crime of murder: The blood rushes to the cheeks of the embarrassed person and then drains leaving a pale white face, not unlike the appearance of a dead person. Embarrassing another may be even more odious than murder, for murder entails finality. A single person, however, can be embarrassed numerous times, in effect killing that person time and again.
Our sages also direct their attention to those who are embarrassed by their own deeds: "Anyone who commits a sin and is embarrassed by it - is forgiven for all transgressions" (B. Berachot 12b). This declaration is rooted in the words of the prophet Ezekiel: So that you will remember and be ashamed... when I have forgiven you for all you have done, says the Lord God (Ezekiel 16:63).
The Talmud questions this source: Perhaps shame is a potent ingredient for the atonement of the community, as implied in the biblical verse. Who says it works for individuals as well?
Our sages therefore offer another biblical source - this time describing the forgiveness of an individual. King Saul found himself in trouble and sought sage advice (I Samuel 28). He turned to a necromancer and asked her to raise the spirit of the prophet Samuel. When the ghost of Samuel appeared it demanded, "Why have you disturbed me and brought me up?"
King Saul replied, "I am in dire straits, and the Philistines are making war against me. God has turned away from me and does not answer me any more - not through the prophets nor by dreams - and I am asking you to tell me what to do!"
While the biblical episode is both fascinating and puzzling, the Talmud here focuses on one aspect: King Saul desired Divine counsel and consulted two media but did not turn to the High Priest and ask him to inquire of the Urim VeTumim, a proven mouthpiece for Divine guidance in biblical times. The Talmud explains this omission with reference to an episode that King Saul would have preferred to forget: the slaughter of a city of priests after accusing them of conspiring with young David against Saul's rule (I Samuel 22). Thus the king did not approach the High Priest out of embarrassment for his horrific conduct.
How do we know that King Saul was forgiven? The Talmud continues with the answer supplied by the spirit of Samuel predicting the impending defeat in battle and Saul's demise: "...and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me." "With me," meaning in my company. If Saul was to merit the company of Samuel in the afterlife, clearly he had been forgiven.
A careful reading of the talmudic statement - "Anyone who commits a sin and is embarrassed by it - is forgiven for all transgressions" - raises an interesting question: Why is shame in the wake of sin considered a salve for all the crimes of the ashamed? Let the embarrassment atone for the specific sin of which the perpetrator is guilty, but what is the logic of a blanket atonement for all failings?
One commentator notes this nuance and suggests that indeed embarrassment results in forgiveness for all sins of which a person is ashamed since shame is tantamount to repentance (Ritva, 13th-14th centuries, Spain). Alas, such an explanation may not fit the talmudic language, which seems to suggest that shame - even for one specific iniquity - carries forgiveness for all transgressions.
In responding to this passage, another commentator proposes that the embarrassment is not for committing the crime specifically in the public eye. Regardless of whether there are witnesses to the act of wrongdoing, the perpetrator should be ashamed of executing an unlawful act. Atonement is affected through the feeling of internal shame that gnaws at the conscience of the criminal. This deep feeling of regret has the power to expiate all wrongdoings (Rabbi Naftali Katz, 17th-18th centuries, Poland).
FOLLOWING THIS approach we can understand an interesting juxtaposition in the Yom Kippur prayer service. Toward the end of the silent Amida at each service, we turn to God with the words, "Behold I am before You as a vessel filled with shame and disgrace." We immediately continue with a request, "May it be Your will, Lord, my God and the God of my forebears, that I shall sin no more; and the sins which I have committed before You, erase them in Your abounding mercies, though not through suffering and severe illness."
The source of this prayer is a personal supplication that the Babylonian sage Rava would add to his daily prayers. Another sage, Rav Hamnuna Zuti, would recite this prayer as part of the confessional prayers on Yom Kippur (B. Berachot 17a). Our liturgy seems to have preferred the approach of the latter sage and adopted the prayer for the Yom Kippur service.
Focusing on the content of the prayer we can see that it involves an acknowledgement of shame and worthlessness, followed by a twofold request for the future: that I should sin no more and that my previous crimes should be erased. While we might expect a request for Divine assistance in avoiding sinful pitfalls that bring about shame, how are we to understand the appeal for a deletion of all earlier crimes? Under what pretext do we petition for this erasure?
In truth this prayer can be understood in light of the words of our sages: It is precisely because I stand before the Almighty as a vessel filled with shame and disgrace that I can have the daring to sue for an erasure of all transgressions. The humiliation itself is the justification for wiping our slate clean.
Being embarrassed is never a desirable state, yet as we stand before the Almighty on Yom Kippur it may stand us in good stead. As our eyes focus on the liturgy and our hearts and minds do a personal accounting, it is our feelings of humiliation and disgrace for past wrongs that validate our requests for atonement.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.