When was the last time you blushed? Physiologically speaking, when was the last time you were in a situation when uncomfortable circumstances caused an irregular flow of blood to your head and caused a reddish tone to appear in some form on your face (often the cheeks)? Emotionally speaking, when was the last time that you felt embarrassment or shame because of something you heard, said or did that was inappropriate, disrespectful or disgraceful??
We do not live in a society in which we blush a lot. We live lives in a more public eye – everything we do seems to get quickly and abundantly documented and shared via the wonders of the web. So, perhaps we are immune to frequent moments of shame. We live in an era that encourages (and even rewards) personal expression (the more outrageous, the better). So, perhaps a feeling like shame inhibits such pursuits and developments.
Are we evolving past the point as a species that we find shame a useful emotion or blushing as a productive physiological response to shame? Will shame and the blush go the way of the appendix – as anachronistic remnants of once useful ‘organs’? Or, do these built in ‘defenses’ of shame and the blush hold some deeper meaning or purpose for we human beings as we continue to understand our existential place.
In this week’s foray (Shemini) into the book of Leviticus, we continue wading through the accounting of the priestly and cultic laws and customs. Early on in the portion – in a seemingly innocuous line in the text – the Torah says that Moses told Aaron to approach the altar where the sacrifices were to be done. Aaron was the high priest, so it seems rather obvious that he would be the one approaching the altar. Not so obvious for the 11th century French commentator, Rashi. Rashi wanted to know why Aaron – who was the high priest – needed Moses to tell him to approach the altar at all. Rashi’s answer to his question: Aaron was ashamed. (He does not tell us why.) Not only does Rashi suggest that Aaron was ashamed (he may have been blushing, too), but Rashi teaches that Moses said something very helpful to Aaron (to help get him to the altar) and instructive to us as we consider the emotion of shame: “Why are you ashamed? For this you were chosen!” Moses (or Rashi) suggests that because Aaron was able to feel shame, that he ascended to this sacred role of high priest.
Our tradition suggests to us to consider the powerful place that shame may hold in our lives. Our spiritual development depends partly on our ability to emotionally and physically experience the impact of actions that are inappropriate, disrespectful or disgraceful. This kind of healthy shame empowers us to understand our limits and to establish healthy boundaries between the human beings with whom we share the world.