The Recognition of Shame
The nine days of mourning for Jerusalem’s fall and the destruction of the
Temples are upon us. This Shabat, which always precedes Tisha B’Av itself,
takes its name from the haftorah of the prophet Yeshayahu read in the
synagogue. The words of the prophet condemn the social ills of his times and
society – governmental corruption, economic unfairness and a lack of legal
and social justice. But these are the problems that have plagued all human
societies from time immemorial. And they are omnipresent in our current
world and national society today as well.
So, at first glance, one could conclude that the prophet is making
impossible demands, since human behavior and social interactions can never
eliminate these issues fully. And we are all well aware that the Torah never
demands the impossible from its human subjects. So what is the point of the
prophet’s criticism and harsh judgments? What is it that he really demands
from us fallible mortal creatures?
I feel that he demands of us that we at least realize and recognize the
shortcomings in our society. We may not be able to correct them all
completely, but we should know that they exist. We should never allow apathy
the ability to overwhelm our better instincts and arrest our never-ending
quest for an improved social structure.
The prophet demands that we remain relentless in trying to improve the
social conditions of the world we live in even if we know at the outset that
complete success is beyond our human capabilities. By accepting our societal
deficiencies without a murmur of regret or complaint we become complicit in
our own eventual destruction.
The Chafetz Chaim is reputed to have said that what motivated him to write
his monumental work about the evils of slander and evil speech was that he
noticed that people who had engaged in such speech no longer exuded a sigh
of regret over their words. Evil speech had become societally acceptable and
there was no sense of shame or embarrassment present about engaging in that
type of behavior.
Shame is a great weapon for good and when it disappears from society, when
brazen self-interest and greed is somehow legitimized, then the prophet
warns us of impending doom. Politicians disgraced by their previous behavior
openly vie again for public office as though having served one’s time in
jail or being forced to resign from public office wipes their slate clean
A society that knows no shame, whose leaders never recognize the moral
turpitude of their past behavior, dooms itself to the ills of favoritism,
corruption and unfairness that will plague its existence. The prophet
demands of us that even if we are unable to correct all ills and right all
wrongs we should at least be ashamed that such ills and wrongs exist within
That recognition and sense of shame that accompanies it serves as the basis
for possible necessary improvement in social attitudes and societal
behavior. Then the prophet’s optimistic prediction “Zion shall be redeemed
through justice and those who return to it will also find redemption through
righteousness“ will yet be fully fulfilled.
Rabbi Berel Wein