Each year, as we approach Yom Kippur, we try to prepare and find ways to make new and relevant connections to this ancient holiday. This week, as I studied, I was struck by a teaching of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who argues that the essential task of Yom Kippur is to develop a sense of embarrassment and a sense of inadequacy. By deepening this sense, Heschel argues, we seek to improve ourselves, and to instill a yearning for a better world. “It would be a great calamity for humanity if the sense of embarrassment disappeared, if everyone was an all-rightnik, with an answer to every problem. We have no answer to ultimate problems. We really don’t know. In this not knowing, in this sense of embarrassment, lies the key to opening the wells of creativity.” In other words, our embarrassment becomes a stimulus for creativity and change.
On the one hand, this notion of feeling regret, remorse, and embarrassment resonates with me, as there are certainly many ways in which I would like to improve myself in the year ahead. I aspire to become more patient, more compassionate, and more present. But over these last few weeks as I have watched our students at Shefa and remembered our visits to their previous schools, I have been thinking a lot about the deep costs of shame and embarrassment. Our Shefa students all endured too much shame in their short lives. Last year we watched them be “pulled out” by tutors and learning specialists, we saw them sit nervously as the lesson passed by. Sometimes now we watch as our students puff out their chests remarking, “this is too easy” or, “why don’t you know that?” These comments are residue from our students’ old contexts. They probably heard other students chide them with these sorts of judgments, and they may have made these statements in an effort to prove that they were competent and bright. We are certainly focusing attention on erasing these comments from the Shefa culture. At the same time, we need to acknowledge and empathize with our students who have lived with shame. Our children felt the shame of not knowing or not remembering, the shame of moving slower or finding certain skills more difficult than their peers, the shame of feeling different. These experiences have shaped our students.
I am sure that when Rabbi Heschel urged us to feel embarrassed he was not referring to the sort of shame our students experienced. For our students were doing the best that they could do. But, this year my personal intention includes less shame, less self-flagellation, and more focus on the future. I want more focus on setting intentions for who I want to be. More focus on how I want to help build a better world. More focus on finding compassion for others. Often, our shame makes us feel bad and hopeless and stands in our way, rather than serving as motivation for growth
We need to find a balance. As one eighteenth-century rabbi described: A person should always carry two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one it should be written ‘The world was created for my sake,’ and on the other it should say ‘I am but dust and ashes.” On days when we feel discouraged and worthless, we should read the first one. On days when we’re consumed with pride and our own self-importance, we should read the other. Surely Yom Kippur is a time when we focus more on our being dust and ashes, feeling humble, feeling small. And it is healthy and important to take this time. But this process is not an end for its own sake, but rather a means to look forward to our year ahead, a year when we can all be our best, a year when we will be able to celebrate our children feeling less shame and more pride for who they are and for all that they can do.
Ilana received her B.A. from Harvard College and a Master's Degree in Education from Bank Street College. She was born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and now lives there with her husband and three children.
Latest posts by Ilana Ruskay-Kidd (see all)
- Gratitude - October 31, 2014
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- The World Was Created For My Sake… I Am But Dust And Ashes - October 3, 2014