Yom Kippur: Overcoming Shame and Being a Blessing

In the times when the Temple stood, it was only one day out of the year when the holiest person would enter into the holiest space at the holiest time. The Talmud (Berachot 7a) relates the following story of what happened on one of these occasions when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur:

The high priest, Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha said: Once I entered into the holy of holies to burn incense in the inner innermost sanctum. And there I saw God sitting on a high and lofty throne [of compassion].

One might have thought it was shocking for Rabbi Yishmael to see God upon his heavenly throne as this is a vision reserved for only the highest of prophets. However, it was what came next that truly startled him. The story continues:

God said to me Yishmael, my son, bless me. So I said to him: Master of the Universe. May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger.That You behave toward your children with the attribute of mercy. And that for their sake, You go beyond the boundary of judgement. In response to this blessing, God nods to Rebbi Yishmael in approval

What could be stranger than this?! On Yom Kippur we fast, and we pray, and we plead, so that God will grant us forgiveness for our sins. It’s not supposed to be the other way around. Yet on that particular Yom Kippur, God requested a blessing from Rabbi Yishmael. The Talmud draws a surprising conclusion from this story:  “never underestimate the blessing offered by even an ordinary person.” If God desires the blessing of the high priest then even our own blessings must have great power.

In the modern world we don’t think much of blessing others. Unless you are a tzadik, how often in our daily lives are we asked to bless others? If asked to give a blessing, we have a tendency to think it’s not for us. This isn’t just because we are overly rational about such things and dismiss blessings as mere superstition. The real reason is though many would claim we live in an age of narcissism, we also live in an age of great insecurity. We rarely believe in ourselves to the extent that we should and spend much of our lives battling regrets about what could have been. Deeply skeptical of our own capabilities, we constantly look back to the past, nostalgic for the optimism and heroism of previous generations. The Talmudic story of Rabbi Yishmael on Yom Kippur, however, emphasizes a basic truth.

All of us have the power to give blessings or as God said to Avraham “to be a blessing” (Bereshit 12:2.) However, the tragedy is that we don’t believe in our capacity to grow, to change, and to better the world around us.  When Rabbi Yishmael went into the holy of holies, he discovered a great power within himself that he never quite knew was there before. On Yom Kippur, we must all work to do the same.

What holds us back from achieving this is something that we don’t like to talk about. Our society has what some have described as an epidemic of shame. We all feel tremendous pressure to conform to societal ideals of beauty, wealth, and success that are forever beyond our reach. People all around us continually broadcast their seemingly picture perfect lives, while we constantly feel judged and unable to measure up. We all have beliefs about what makes us different – what disconnects us from everyone else, and how we hold shame about those things we don’t like about ourselves. Those secrets we can’t tell anyone are shameful to us, and create further distance between us and others.

In my own life, I have struggled with shame and the low self-esteem that went along with it. When I was younger, I was overweight and bullied in school. I didn’t have a lot of friends. My family was not as well off as others and my peers knew it. All of these factors left their marks on me. I am deeply grateful to having loving parents and a caring wife, but I also know that I carry the scars of insecurity deep within me.

The Torah powerfully captures the dynamics of shame which can be seen the very first time that human beings sin. As a result of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve became aware of their own nakedness. In response, they fashioned crude garments from fig leaves in order to cover themselves. Rashi, however, asks a perceptive question.[1] Are we really supposed to believe that Adam and Eve were unaware of their nakedness before they ate from the tree? They had two eyes and presumably, they could see accurately. In fact, Rashi explains, even a blind person knows if they are naked. Rather, after eating from the tree, they became fully cognizant that they had violated God’s command and in doing so, they had stripped themselves of the one precious mitzvah that God had given them. They became aware of their moral and spiritual nakedness. Through divesting themselves of virtue, they fundamentally damaged their relationship with God.

In the aftermath of their sin, Adam and Eve hear God’s voice in the Garden, and hide, a classic response to deep feelings of shame. The reason for this is that shame has a social dimension to it. In the presence of others, feelings of shame and embarrassment are magnified and can transform into humiliation.

In those moments, we feel that we do not belong and that there is something truly disgusting inside of us. Our natural inclination is to run away and to shield ourselves from all others. In fact, the origin of the word shame in English means to cover or hide. When we become aware of our sins, we cannot bear the judgement of others. Even just being seen tangibly brings forth feelings of worthlessness.

I have a distinct memory from my childhood of having done something that brought me a deep sense of shame. I was about four years old and playing on the front lawn of my home, when I decided to pick up a rock and throw it at an oncoming car. It actually happened to be an expensive sports car. I don’t know what possessed me to do it. Perhaps it was a desire to show how powerful I am. Thank God, the car was merely dented and the driver uninjured.

However, he did pull over and speak to my parents who were mortified. As you can imagine, my father and mother were extremely upset with me, and I remember both their embarrassment and anger. Worst of all, I remember recognizing the damage I could have caused. Under different circumstances, my actions have hurt or even killed someone. Every child wants to see themselves as good, but shame is a terrible reminder that we are not who we think we are. It comes from having glanced at the darkness inside of ourselves and deepens when we fear that other people have seen it as well.

Perhaps the worst aspect of shame, when all is said and done, is that it gets in the way of teshuva. Shame inflicts a double punishment upon us. Not only does it bring us pain, but it also causes denial, anger, and even aggression. Psychoanalysts who have done extensive research on shame argue that: “Shame prone individuals appear relatively more likely to blame others (as well as themselves) for negative events, more prone to a seething, bitter, resentful kind of anger and hostility and less able to empathize with others”[2]

When we feel intense shame, we become incapable of taking responsibility for our actions because to do so would confirm our darkest suspicions about ourselves. If people who we have wronged reach out to us, we lash out at them even harder. We will do anything to protect ourselves not realizing that we do far more harm than good.

If shame prevents teshuva, then the only way to engage in authentic repentance is if we learn to let go of our shame. In fact, this leads to a profoundly counter intuitive insight. Before we can apologize to others, we must first be willing to forgive ourselves! Only through forgiving ourselves can we let go of the shame that darkens the edges of our soul.

In our age of self-help, self-forgiveness often gets a bad rap. It is not about making excuses for our behavior, but rather it’s about shifting our internal narrative from, “I have done something terrible and therefore I am disgusting” to “I have done something wrong, but I am still a good person deserving of love and I must do my best to rectify the sin.” It is not easy to achieve this, but self-forgiveness is an essential part of the teshuvah process. According to Rav Kook:

When a person strives for teshuvah m’ahava, repentance out of love, the highest level of teshuvah, they must forgive themselves for all their transgressions, just as one would make amends with another person in order to achieve forgiveness.[3]

As long as we are stuck in the language and feelings of self-judgement and shame, all that we will be able to muster is teshuva m’yirah, repentance out of fear, a lower form of repentance.  We may be able to fix a few sins here and there, but only teshuva m’ahava can truly transform our entire orientation towards God and the world.

In order to start the path of self-forgiveness, we must first recognize that sin is a part of life for all of us. There is no person on this earth who is without sin.[4] The shame that accompanies our sins often convinces into thinking that we must be a terrible human being. Why else would engage in such awful behavior violating the Torah or hurting the ones we love? But of course, we all do these things.

The great Chassidic master, Rav Tzadok HaKohen teaches the world was created with cycles of both darkness and light symbolizing the reality that we will all sin.[5] In fact, we will sin many times. However, the story does not end there. Though the gates of prayer maybe sometimes open and sometimes closed, the gates of teshuvah are always open to us.[6]  Rav Tzadok explains that just as in creation darkness precedes light, so too night is the beginning of day. In the dark moments of our failures we must remember that sin is part of life and that the dawn of forgiveness will eventually break.

The next step towards self-forgiveness is to have compassion for ourselves and this is perhaps the hardest step of all. We are often our own worst critics.  The moment we make a mistake, we immediately start telling ourselves how stupid or lazy or ignorant we must be. We rarely treat ourselves with the same compassion that we would show to others in a similar situation. It requires constant effort to change these self-destructive habits. It is said about Rav Nachman of Breslov that in order to cultivate a sense of compassion for himself he would begin each morning through prayer, torah study, and speaking directly to God proclaiming, “I must have compassion on myself.”[7]

When we mess up, we must be willing to offer ourselves not excuses but patience and understanding. We are not perfect and even if we may have done wrong this time, there will always be another opportunity to get it right. Even when we fail, we have to believe that we are we are still deserving of love and forgiveness. Only then can we do teshuvah and avoid descending into a spiral of shame.

A deeper appreciation for the dynamics of shame helps us better understands the unique blessing that Rabbi Yishmael offered to God in the holy of holies on Yom Kippur. His prayer was: “May it be Your will God, that your mercy overcome your anger and that that through your compassion God, You shall transcend the harshness of your judgement.” I think Rabbi Yishmael’s blessing was not just for God but for all of us. We must all work to ensure that our self-compassion overcomes our self-judgement so that our shame does not drag us into the mud.  Instead, we must find the strength to forgive ourselves, and in doing so recognize as Rabbi Yishmael did that each one of us has the power to give blessings and to be a blessing.

There is a beautiful story which illustrates this from Open Up the Iron Door, Rabbi Avi Weiss’  memoir about his activism in the struggle for Soviet Jewry.[8] After years spent in the Soviet gulag, Natan Sharansky traveled with Rabbi Weiss throughout America to continue to make the case for Soviet Jews still trapped behind the Iron Curtain. One time the two of them were at JFK airport in New York when a strange little man approached them. He was clearly Jewish, placed his black yarmulke on Natan Sharansky’s head, and muttered in a deep Yiddish accent, “Gib mir a berakha” (Give me a blessing). Natan seemed confused, so Rabbi Weiss turned to him and said, “Natan, you’re not going to believe this, but you’ve become a Hassidishe Rebbe. This man wants a blessing from you.”

Natan told the man, “You don’t understand. I’m not a rebbe.” He pointed to Rabbi Weiss and said, “This man, he is a rabbi. He’ll bless you!” “But the strange little man wouldn’t have it. “I have no interest in his blessing- only yours. And, Mr. Sharansky I will not move from here until you give me a berakha.” “So Rabbi Weiss turned to Natan and said, “you may have overcome the KGB, but you’re not going to beat this Yiddele. You’ve got a plane to catch. Just put your hands on his head and give him a berakha and let’s go.”

With a twinkle in his eye, Natan placed his hands on the man’s head and recited the following blessing: Barukh Ata Hashem, Elokeinu Melekh HaOlam HaMotzi Lehem Min HaAretz. Instead of offering a more personal blessing, he recited the benediction that one makes over bread. Even Natan Sharansky, the great Prisoner of Zion, a hero to millions who had inspired so many with his courage, did not believe that he was worthy of giving a blessing to a simple Jew. However, what was even more surprising was the man’s response. He simply took back his yarmulke, and walked off absolutely delighted with a large smile on his face.

We all have goodness within us, though we too often fail to realize it. On Yom Kippur we must take that critical step of letting go of our shame. We must offer ourselves compassion and even forgive ourselves. We must look inside and discover the essential goodness that is contained within all of us. Only then can we do real teshuva and discover that we can both give blessings and be a blessing in this world.

[1] Bereshit 3:7, Vatifkechena

[2] Shame and Guilt, June Price Tangney, Ronda L. Dearing, p. 3

[3] Shemoneh Kevatzim 1:671

[4] Kohelet 7:20

[5] Tzidkat HaTzadik (84, #174)

[6] Devarim Rabbah 2:12

[7] Chayei Moharan 24

[8] Adapted from page 171.

About the Author
Rabbi Zachary Truboff recently made aliyah and moved with his family to Jerusalem. He is the director of the English speaking program at Bina L'Itim, a project of Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak and an educator for the Hartman Institute. For nearly a decade, he served as the rabbi of Cedar Sinai Syagogue in Cleveland, OH. He is an officer of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He has a passion for using Jewish texts and ideas along with contemporary thought to address important issues of the day.
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