Torah from Around the World #44

By: Rabbi Katalin Kelemen, founding member
and spiritual leader of

Sim Shalom

, Hungary (Sim
Shalom is the first post-war Progressive Hungarian Jewish Congregation)

Reveals Himself: How to Deal With Shame”

eineinu b’toratecha

… Let our eyes see the light of Your teaching and our
hearts embrace Your commands .Give us integrity to love You and fear You. So
shall we never lose our self-respect, nor be put to shame, for You are the
power which works to save us.”

I first heard this prayer sung, I was struck dumb by the meaning of the words.
It happened in the early nineties at a Shabbat Service in Finchley Reform
Synagogue in London. At that moment I felt a wall falling down – a strong wall
which had built up between me and God, between me and prayers in the years when
I was growing up in Communist Hungary. As a member of the second generation of
Holocaust survivors, shame and lack of self-respect were dominating threads in
our lives. We did not know who we were or where we came from – growing up in a
family of confused silences and half-uttered truths and badly disguised secrets
about our family history. In the Shoah my parents and grandparents were put to
the greatest shame ever for being Jewish, and after the war in a secular
Communist world neither they nor their children were able to completely come
out of it.

the concept of God as a saving power from shame was a revelation for me and the
start of a healing process. In later years, studying the prayers together with
my community members, I found out that I was not the only one who experienced
the revelation that in Judaism God has something to do with getting rid of

this week’s parshah we have another beautiful example of the principle that
shame should be avoided. Joseph, through his transformational process, can
understand now that avoiding shame is part of God’s intention. This can be
understood from the way that he manages the big reconciliation scene with his

before we get to this story, let’s consider the meeting of Jacob with Esau,
which we read a few weeks ago in Genesis 32. It is a parallel story of the
reconciliation of two brothers who have been in conflict, though now the
brother who committed the sin is the one who initiates the reconciliation. But
out of fear, Jacob humiliates himself because he doesn’t feel that he and Esau
are on equal terms with each other. He sends gifts, hoping to buy Esau’s good
will, and addresses him in a submissive way. The two parties


on equal terms when shame or humiliation are part of the relationship.

back to Joseph, we learn that he


sensitive to the
implications of shame. A. G. Zornberg in “The Beginning of Desire” (p. 333,)
points out that many commentators have asked the question: How is it that
Joseph was not able to communicate with his father during all the years of his
success?  For the answer she refers to Or Ha-Hayyim 45:26:  Joseph is
paralyzed by the prospect of his brothers’ shame if he reveals himself to his

now has the insight to realize that he has to manipulate the drama so that his
brothers’ shame is neutralized bringing them all to an equal level and hence
can be truly reconciled. It helps that he learned earlier that his brothers
were repentant about having sold him into slavery. In Genesis 45: 1–15 he sends
all the servants out of the room before revealing himself to his brothers. Then
he says: “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt”– not being silent
about their main sin, but including himself into their midst, showing that he
was not completely innocent in the episode. By identifying himself as their
brother, he shows that he is now ready to reconnect with them.

knows that we cannot change the actual events of the past, but we can change
how we feel about them by giving a new interpretation to them. So he says to
his brothers: “God sent me ahead of you to insure your survival on earth… So,
it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45: 7–8). In this way he generously
helps his brothers to get rid of their guilt feelings.

next step in his strategy for eliminating the shame of his brothers is that he
makes it their task to inform their father about his favorite son’s
“resurrection”. In this way they have an active role in the reparation process.
He finishes his message to his father and his brothers with a beautiful vision
of the future in which separation and isolation will be no more, and the family
be reunited and close to each other.

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