Waiting for the lift at my health fund last week, I became aware of a little scene playing out beside me. A tall man - obviously American, from the way he spoke English - addressed someone I couldn't see. "Your behavior is unacceptable," he said quietly but firmly. Bending forward slightly, I saw, on his other side, a diminutive boy of about three-and-a-half, maybe four, and he was hanging his head - something I couldn't remember having witnessed before. Modern kids, when told off by their parents, tend to brazen it out. They may feign (or genuinely feel) indifference, look sullen, or answer back. But this child was ashamed. The lift arrived, and we piled in. As the doors closed and we began our ascent, I was curious to see what would happen next. The little boy looked up an immense distance into his father's face and said, sadly: "I don't want to fight with you, Daddy." "Good boy," the father replied. He took a peach out of his shoulder bag and handed it over. They arrived at their floor; the doors opened and the little boy scampered out beside his dad, happily eating his peach, harmony restored to his world. Shame: 1. a painful emotion resulting from an awareness of having done something dishonorable, unworthy or degrading; 2. capacity to feel such an emotion - The Collins English Dictionary A VERY great deal is traditionally said and written at this time of the Jewish year about repentance or teshuva (from the Hebrew for "return"). We are, in fact, right now in the midst of the "10 Days of Repentance" between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur - a period in which we are enjoined to reflect on our actions over the past year, pinpoint where we have fallen short and make a conscious decision to "return" to the honest, the upright and the good. So central is the concept of teshuva to the structure of the High Holydays that, according to the liturgy, it is one of just three human acts - the others are prayer and charity - having the power to "avert the severe decree" that may be issued On High for any Jew over Rosh Hashana, to be "rubber-stamped" on Yom Kippur. Go to a synagogue anywhere in the Jewish world this coming Saturday (called Shabbat Shuva, Sabbath of Repentance) and it's a safe bet that the rabbi, in whatever language he addresses his congregants, will be talking about the need for repentance. Where wronging our fellow man is concerned, even repenting per se isn't enough. Jewish tradition holds that divine absolution will be withheld if we have not first personally asked forgiveness from those we have injured; which means that these 10 all-important days see a measure of toing and froing as people accost each other to request pardon for some less than noble action. One former colleague, I remember, would cover all his bases at this time of year by visiting every office here at the Post, sticking his head around the door and seeking general absolution "if I have offended anyone." All very good and worthy; but it seems to me that repentance is impossible without shame... and there's the rub. Shame is in short supply these days. THERE'S plenty of guilt, but that isn't the same. Far from prompting its bearer to make amends, guilt can actually, psychologists point out, take the place of doing anything at all. Guilt over bad behavior - say, neglecting to visit an elderly, ailing relative - produces a sense of contrition that may quite comfortably substitute for action. In a strange inversion of reality, we feel we've done our bit; and there the matter rests. Shame, by contrast - that "painful emotion" - is the very antithesis of comfort. Its heat turns the face red as it burns away inside us. How many of us have felt anything like that during these Days of Awe, when sin and punishment, remorse and atonement are meant to be uppermost in our minds? I'll admit I haven't. PART of the problem is that we're all such masters at rationalization. We behaved less than admirably on such and such an occasion? Well, we didn't really have a choice; it would probably have happened anyway; so-and-so has surely gotten over it by now; circumstances forced us, etc., etc. Most of us are far, far beneath the moral stature of that Torah sage who devoted his life to good works and yet whose disciples found him weeping because, as he explained, he couldn't get the better of his feelings of pride and vanity. Then again, our lives are so chock-full of events that one meeting, appointment, project, lesson, celebration comes on the heels of another, taking our breath away. We've barely time to turn around, let alone remember whom we might have offended. In the daily rush, we've largely lost the habit of introspection - even on Shabbat, that "temple in time," arriving once a week with its lengthy mealtimes and socializing. True, there's the buildup during the month of Elul, with the sound of the shofar calling one and all to awake. People attend slichot, the penitential services. The liturgy for both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is impressive and moving as we stand on spiritual tiptoe, stretching out and up to a hopefully benevolent, nameless entity we cannot fathom. We acknowledge, communally, all possible sins, as delineated in the Al Het prayer, confessing to them in the plural so that all take collective responsibility for all. But I ask again: How many of us have burned with shame over anything we've done in the past year? POSSIBLY this is asking too much and, as in so many things, we need to aim for modesty in our repenting, too. Al Het is a fairly comprehensive list of wrong actions: At least one or two should, if we listen carefully, echo not just in our ears but in our consciences as we recite the litany at various points throughout Yom Kippur, prompting us to recall our actions over the year. Even those who won't attend formal services can find inspiration in the programs and even popular songs being broadcast this week, many of them based on Jewish liturgical poetry. A to B: Listen carefully to what I'm going to tell you, because I was asked not to repeat it. THE SIN that always gets me is the one for which Jewish tradition warns us no repentance is possible - lashon hara, often translated as "gossip." The reason we cannot repent for this is that when we pass on a rumor about someone else - even when it's not consciously malicious - we have no control over who will pass it on further, and whom it will reach. It's been likened to going up onto your roof in a high wind and cutting open a feather pillow. The feathers blow away and can never be gathered up again. We can never trace everyone who heard and retransmitted that piece of gossip; or, indeed, know the damage it might have caused. Now a newspaper is a gossipy place and rumors fly around like, well, feathers in the wind. I'm a fairly discreet person and if I'm told to keep a confidence, I do. Even when something is told to me openly, I often keep it to myself. Nevertheless, my better self has more than once asked: "Did you really have to say that (about someone)?" and I've regretted having done so. Clearly, there's room here for reform. I'll try to think about that on Yom Kippur. ALL IN all, perhaps there's more than a touch of symbolism to be found this week in the tableau of that tiny boy and his tall father, fallen momentarily out of step and out of temper with each other, then reconciling in peace and love. We too - we can bet our lives on it - have stumbled somehow, somewhere this year. Before beginning this piece, I looked up the word "atonement," and the dictionary defined it for me as: reconciliation; "at-one-ment." That's it, exactly.