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You Shall Be Purified

Rabbi Denise L. Eger

Given Kol Nidrei 5779 * Tuesday, September 18, 2018

There was the story of the man who was driving through the Sinai desert on his way to Eilat. Much to his chagrin the car broke down in the middle of his journey, so he decided to walk off the road and look for help. Before long he came upon a remote monastery. He asked the good monks if they happened to have a vehicle he could borrow. The monks explained that they did not own any motorized vehicles, but they would be happy to let the man borrow one of their mules. 
Eager to find help, the man jumped on the animal, kicked his legs, and bellowed “Giddy Up!” the mule refused to move. The monks quickly explained that if he wanted the animal to move forward he needed to say, “Thank you, Lord”, and if he wanted the mule to stop he should say “Amen.!”
So the man immediately exclaimed “Thank you Lord. Thank you, Lord, thank you Lord!” and the mule took off running for his life! The rider held on for dear life and he soon realized the animal was heading toward the edge of a cliff. Just a few feet before they reached the precipice, the rider screamed “Amen” and the mule stopped inches from the overhang! Wiping his brow, the man looked up to heaven and said (Loud enough for the mule to hear) “Thank you Lord!”
Sometimes we all go over the cliff.  We didn’t mean to… but we cause ourselves to fall over the edge. And we fall. Not by someone else’s doing. But by our own words. Our own actions.  And sometimes because of what we feel about ourselves.  Sometimes our sense that we aren’t good enough, aren’t strong enough, that we aren‘t desirable enough, aren’t pretty enough, thin enough, beautiful enough, attractive, rich, powerful, smart, you fill in the blank… we fall over the cliff sometimes bringing others with us because we believe deep down inside—we aren’t enough. We care more for others than ourselves because we feel unworthy or unlovable.  Who could possibly like the real me? So instead I will be someone else that others will like. Sometimes we rage against others to protect ourselves; or maybe we withdraw and isolate because someone might really see the real me, the bad me; we complain and start fights and pick on others and bully them because deep down inside we feel badly about who we are; we have a secret-that we hold on to.  But that deep inner secret—is what brings us over the edge.
My friends, when we feel badly about ourselves—that is shame that is usually talking. 
The son of a rabbi went to worship on the Sabbath in a nearby town.  On his return his family asked,” Well, did you learn anything different from what we do here?”  “Yes”, replied the son, “I learned to love the enemy as I love myself.”  The parents responded, “That’s the same as we do here.  So how is that you learned something new?”  He replied, “They taught me to love the enemy within myself.” 
This story tells the same thing that the great Carl Jung) tells us in in “Memories, Dreams and Reflections: “That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy…these are undoubtedly great virtues… But what if I should discover that the poorest of beggars and the most impudent of offenders are all within me, and that I stand in need of my own kindness; that I myself am the enemy who must be loved? What then?”
What is that enemy within?  It is shame. That feeling that you are not enough, and that everyone, including God will see the real you.  The lesser you.
At its core, Dr. Brene Brown says, shame “is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. She explains expertly:
“We’re afraid that people won’t like us if they know the truth about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, how much we’re struggling, or, believe it or not, how wonderful we are when soaring.”
Dr. Brown is a Social Worker, professor, researcher and storyteller at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has become well known for her research on vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and particularly for her research on shame and how we might build shame resilience.
She is the author of several bestsellers. Including, Rising Strong, The Gifts of Imperfection and most recently Braving the Wilderness. These books are on shame and overcoming its effects and living in authenticity. She has a widely read blog, appeared numerous times with Oprah and given several Ted Talks of which one is in the top 5 viewed around the world!
Shame stays inside of us and can control our thoughts and behaviors and cause us and others great damage.   When you are ashamed of yourself, for who you are in the world, (or rather who you imagine yourself to be in the world) it can destroy you bit by bit and it can eat away at your relationships and skew your mind.
Brown states simply “Shame is that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough.” [i]And when that feeling happens we become flushed, sometimes sweat, tunnel vision can be what we see, and the negative self -talk starts yammering in our heads and won’t let go.  Brown describes the moment when shame take hold of us as a shame spiral.
A shame spiral (maze) is a condition. -It is a term that was coined originally by clinical psychologist Gershen Kaufman, who described it as “A triggering event occurs. … a person is suddenly enmeshed in shame, the eyes turn inward, and the experience becomes totally internal, … The shame feelings flow in a circle, endlessly triggering each other … causing the sense of shame to deepen … until finally the self is engulfed.” 
Out that those feelings of self-loathing we can drown in our own self–hatred. We isolate. Cut our selves off because who could ever want to be our friend, our partner.  The shame lives and thrives in “secrecy, silence and judgement” says Brown. Our shame thrives when we fear the judgement of others.  How we will compare?  And if our secret will be found out we will die.  The Jews had a term for it—a Shanda- shame — an embarrassment, that we don’t measure up, will never fit in, be a pariah.  When a shanda happens it brings embarrassment to all who know.
Shame doesn’t appear from nowhere. It’s a form of conditioning that inhabits your mind, heart, body, and spirit. Maybe you were somehow made to feel ashamed of yourself when you were young – ashamed of who you are, your level of intelligence, your body. Maybe you feel shame because you violated your ethical standards.
If we turn to the Torah the classic story of shame-comes in the opening chapters of Genesis. There we see that shame has plagued us since Adam and Eve bit into the fruit and realized they were naked. Their first instinct was to hide from each other and God (Gen 3:7-11).  That is what shame does.  Isolate us from ourselves and our God.  We just want to hide.  They had one commandment in the Garden of Eden.  Not to eat the fruit of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  And yet they ate from it.  They violated the one rule, the one commandment they had to guard against.  And once they ate of the fruit of the tree, they became embarrassed and aware of their own nakedness (which is a metaphor that they had the awareness that they did something wrong. They felt bad about it. And no wonder. They now stood guilty before God and were vulnerable to each other.  They believed that they were bad.  Not just that they did something bad.  And that is different between shame and guilt.  Guilt is what happens when you violate a commandment, a sin or you are found guilty because of crime in court.  But shame is how you feel about yourself.  There is a distinction between being culpable because of your behavior and the way you feel inside in your inner being.
While the first couple’s punishment for their guilt is to leave the Garden of Eden, leave paradise, the Jewish interpretation is vastly different from that of Christianity.  In Christianity, Adam and Eve’s sin taints humanity forever and human being are bathed in that original sin.  Humanity is bad from the start.  Human beings can only become good when they are saved in Christianity. To be human is to be bathed in shame in Christian thought.
Judaism rejects that.  Human beings aren’t bad intrinsically. Rather we are created in the divine image, B’tzelem Elohim. We have the capacity to think and we have free will according to Jewish thought. We can do good or we can do wrong.  But we are not stained from birth from some original sin.
And in fact, we give each other permission to pray with those who have sinned.  We try to take away the stigma. A kind of shame reducer. Just before the chanting of Kol Nidre.  We said that we consent to pray and be in community with one another even though we have sinned.  Judaism is much more concerned with ensuring your right action, living up to our values, teaching and mitzvoth than shaming you for who you are. Or who you think you are.
Tonight, is the night of discovering and loving ourselves enough ourselves to banish the enemy within.  On this day of Yom Kippur, we will get rid of guilt for our trespasses; our failures of our actions, words and deeds to live up to our standards of behavior. But for our teshuvah to be complete we must seek forgiveness from those we harmed to try and repair relationships.  
But how to banish shame?  “The victim of our crime or sin may have forgiven us, but inside we still feel defiled by the knowledge that our name has been disgraced, our reputation harmed, our standing damaged. We still feel the stigma, the dishonor, the degradation,” said Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief Rabbi of England[ii].    This is the link between guilt and shame---we may have done things that make us feel badly about ourselves. And we may be ashamed of our behavior.  And sometimes when we are ashamed of our actions, it helps us remember not to do it again. While guilt and shame are very different they often have a complex connection to one another.  It is part of the process of repentance, to feel ashamed for who we became in the process of committing those acts.  Our Teshuvah, is only complete when we can acknowledge what we have become through our actions, and express true remorse, through confession, prayer and charity and asking for that forgiveness, and then resisting the next time we are tempted to repeat that act.
So while this holy season is for confessing our guilt- and being forgiven from our trespasses Yom Kippur also has another role to play in our lives. These holy days are also here to purify and renew you-by washing you clean of shame.
Yom Kippur is for cracking open your heart to help you heal. To banish the secrets and self-judgements, the feelings of shame that eat at you and control your thoughts and actions.
The antidote to shame is uncovering the truth of who you are.  Being your authentic self and letting it shine is the only way to overcome shame. 
You see that is why we come out about being gay or lesbian.  When we share who we really are—there is no shame even if others try to shame us.  When we admit we were powerless over drugs or alcohol, it is the first step to removing the dark secrets that dwell in our hearts, the pain that has accumulated through the years.  When we speak about what we are ashamed of we begin to reshape our world.  That has been part of the power of the #MeToo movement.  Those of us who are victims of sexual abuse, rape, molestation- have been sharing openly that for which we have been made to feel ashamed. 
And coming out about the secret is the antidote and part of developing shame resilience. The stories strengthen us. You see Healing from shame invites radical honesty.  And when we share our true stories we build empathy in ourselves and others.  And that empathy is the key to overcoming the sickening brew that is shame.  When others acknowledge our story and are empathetic to us, it takes the shame away bit by bit.  And it is then that we realize we are not alone at all.  This is why confession matters—because we must be honest about what happened to us and what we caused in others.  This, this is how we banish the shame from inside us. 
A word about perpetrators—if you shame others or embarrass them our tradition sees this as a great sin.  Our tradition is very critical of those who bully or embarrass others. In fact, this is seen as a murder. Murder of a reputation.  Some of our commentators even say it more heinous than murder. With murder you destroy a life once but with shaming you destroy a life repeatedly.  Our Sages teaches us that if the humiliation took place in the presence of others, make your apology in their presence, as well as in private. Otherwise the victim has the right to say, “You shamed me in front of others, and now you want to apologize in private. Bring me all the people who heard you embarrass me, and then I will accept your apology. [iii]
We can and should hold people accountable for their behavior, but we also ought to remember the line between acknowledging guilt and shaming people for who they are.  And so it is important to be careful in our language.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, teaches this:
Judaism is a religion of hope, and its great rituals of repentance and atonement are part of that hope. …. Hence the elaborate ritual of the scapegoat that seemed to carry away the tumah, the defilement that is the mark of shame. It could only be done on Yom Kippur because that was the one day of the year in which everyone shared at least vicariously in the process of confession, repentance, atonement and purification. When a whole society confesses its guilt, individuals can be redeemed from shame.[iv]
On Yom Kippur afternoon-the High Priest would in ancient days send the scape goat-to Azazel.  That poor goat was sent forth with our shame, our busha, in the wilderness so we could purify our hearts and souls.  This act-didn’t just take our sins to the wilderness, in truth this was to take our shame away and purify the people.  That is why the High priest would immerse in the mikveh many times before this sacrifice and entering the Holy of Holies.  The uncleanliness wasn’t physical at all—these rituals of immersion were to wash away the shame in the recesses of the soul.  Purity, spiritual purity, was the way to restore the heart and open it to God and being in relationship with others.
And when the Kohen Gadol the High Priest, was done, and he would emerge from reciting God’s holy Name in the Holy of Holies he would bless the People. And he would say that the people would be “lifnei Adonai titharu” – you are purified before Adonai [v]
There is no High Priest to send the goat away, no Holy of Holies from which to emerge and receive the blessing of purity in our time. But the prophet Ezekiel taught:  And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. [vi]. This is the essence of this day.  A day for giving you a new heart-without shame.
The purity we seek is here. In the words and rituals and melodies of Yom Kippur.  Let them wash over us and open our hearts to receive the healing and purification.  As our prayers say: V’taher libenu L’avdecha  b’emet—Purify our hearts that we may serve You in truth. Let the shame be banished, our guilt atoned. And forgiveness requested from God and all those we have harmed. Let us make complete teshuva, repentance, turning around.
On this complex Atonement Day, Yom Kippur which we have begun tonight calls us to recognize our guilt, our culpability for our sins.  But this holy day also comes to purify and help us overcome and rid us of our shame. Our tradition developed these deep spiritual and psychological rituals to help us know we can be forgiven from our sins and errors and be purified from any shame so that we can go back to our daily lives in this new year and live lives of contentment and wholeness and yes, goodness.  The fasting isn’t punishment-it’s a spiritual technique for purification of your soul.  The notion that you must go to individuals and seek forgiveness and meet eye to eye (not just blanket apologies on Facebook) means that you must have a human encounter of accepting responsibility and also restoration of your standing in the community.
The liturgy- the prayers of this day point us to being in communion with God and each other in a way that is supposed to lift us to worthiness once again.  And when we hear the last blast of the  shofar-at the close of Neilah tomorrow-with that final tekiah gedolah-we will know that God has heard our confessions and prayers, and we will know that we have been purified and cleansed and our teshuvah, our repentance accepted. And our guilt washed away, and we will have our hearts made whole.  We will have kept ourselves through this holy days, from going over the edge. We will know inside that indeed we are enough.
[i] Brown Brene “The Gifts of Imperfection”
[iii] Yalkout Shimoni, Hosea 14
[iv] ibid.
[v] Rabbi Robert Wolkoff, Yom Kippur sermon 2003
[vi] Ez 36:26
Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784