Embarrasment

Stop Embarrassing Me!

A month in which there is no embarrassment and shame...
— Traditional Blessing for Rosh Hodesh

This Shabbat we welcome the Hebrew month of Elul, the warm-up for the High Holiday season and all it demands of us. Last Shabbat we announced the new month with a special prayer, said by the prayer leader holding the Torah. The ushering in of the new month is a solemn testimony and ritual, and we sing it with hope, anticipation and often a degree of anxiety. What will this new month bring? This slight tremor of worry is amplified when we know something momentous will be happening on the calendar in the weeks to come.
 
In the prayer, we make many requests of the new month: it should be a time of joy and friendship, love, honor and riches. We also ask that it not be a time of embarrassment and shame, not for us or for others. We should not be shamed nor should we shame. This expression seems out of line with our other happy and bouncy expectations.
 
And yet, the severity of this wrongdoing grabs our attention. After all, the Talmud takes a forceful approach to this sin: "One who embarrasses another is as if he shed his blood" [BT Bava Metzia 58b]. The Talmudic adage less well-known on the same page is that all who go to hell will come out except those who shame a neighbor. The Hebrew Bible contains many verses that describe the experience of shame, perhaps most importantly the law of not embarrassing someone who requires money as a loan: "When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not enter his house to take his pledge. You shall remain outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you" [Deuteronomy 24:10-11].

One who embarrasses another is as if he shed his blood


There are also biblical narratives that communicate the pain of shame. The prophet Elisha, for example, experiences shame when he is taunted and challenged by contenders for his position. They searched for Elijah who went up in a whirlwind, disregarding Elisha's pleas. "But when they urged him until he was ashamed, he said, 'Send.' They sent therefore fifty men; and they searched three days but did not find him."[II Kings 2:17]. Later, when Elisha gave the gift of a son to a woman who helped him, and the child died, Elisha was humiliated by his actions: "He fixed his gaze steadily on him until he was ashamed, and the man of God wept" [II Kings 8:10]. The powerful prophet weeping communicates the damage that embarrassment causes.

But what of the damage? In the Talmud's daily cycle, we are currently studying the payments due to someone who suffers personal injury. Shame is among those five payments. The others are damages, pain, medical care, and loss of livelihood. There can be costs associated with humiliation that involve no medical injury. Someone who slaps another across the face, shames him but there are unlikely to be medical costs associated with this act.
 
The Talmud raises some fascinating questions about humiliation. How does one estimate a psychic cost, for example? Do people who are rich or poor experience humiliation differently? My personal favorite is if one must pay "humiliation charges" if the victim humiliates himself anyway. Here's what the mishna states: "One who humiliates a naked person or a blind person or a sleeping person is liable, but a sleeping person who humiliates another is exempt" [BT Bava Kamma 86b]. A sleeping person cannot be held liable for his actions. But what about a naked person who displays himself freely? If one were to humiliate him, damages must be paid even though his behavior brings shame to himself.
 
The gemara, in explicating this mishna, throws out a question: "Is a naked person subject to humiliation?" And it offers an illustration. Let's say a gust of wind came and blew up a person's tunic and then another person lifted his clothes even higher to embarrass him further? Show him the money. Nature operates without intention but not human beings. There is no need to make a situation more disgraceful. In that vein, the Talmud makes little distinction, as it often does, between a minor and others. If a child is old enough to be embarrassed then it is forbidden to shame him, and one must pay expenses associated with that shame. Families can also experience shame when one of its members is publicly humiliated.
 
It is difficult to atone for humiliating someone else. The Talmud determined a payment scheme, but money cannot make up for shame. And so as we approach these months of teshuva, repentance, we understand that maybe it is not so odd to ask for a month without shame. The scars caused by humiliation are deep. Some made long ago never heal. It makes us pause and ask ourselves if we have the emotional discipline to hold back on a snarky comment or a public insult or a dismissive jibe that makes us look good at another's expense. And we pray that we aren't the victims of such comments.

Yes, let it be a month without shame or embarrassment, and then perhaps it will be a month of greater joy.

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov