My couch is filled with tears. Every few days someone comes to me, we close the door to my office and they sit on my couch. I offer them coffee or tea and after a few minutes of telling me their story there are usually tears. I don’t mind it, really. Being a rabbi means having a couch that is meant for tears. Tears of those who are sad. Tears of joy for those who have found their partner. Tears of parents who realize their thirteen-year old is only a few years away from moving out. My couch is meant for tears and my couch is full of tears.
Some time ago a successful businessman lost his job because he was “downsized.” I met with him a few times over the last year. He told me that for the first few days, he didn’t tell anyone. The loss of his job felt that he lost a part of himself and he was so ashamed that he could not bear to bring it to light. He would wake up every morning, put on his suit and leave the house like normal, but instead of going to work he was looking for work. For weeks his wife had no idea. Then there is the mom who confessed to me that she started drinking too much because the pressure she felt of looking perfect for her husband and being the perfect mom for her kids was just overwhelming. The world tells us that we cannot be wrong, we cannot be imperfect, and we cannot make a mistake. Mistakes are shameful. Failure is shameful. Imperfection is shameful.
When we feel this kind of shame, we turn in on ourselves and pull away from each other. Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is knowing you messed up. Shame is feeling you are messed up. We feel that we are broken, unclean or impure.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shmini, we find such a moment of shame. God’s place on earth, the Tabernacle, is complete and the entire congregation of Israel comes around for opening day. Moses calls forth the people and then turns to Aaron his brother and says, “Come close to the altar.” (Lev. 9:7). This moment grabs the attention of the rabbis. Why would Moses need to say to his brother “Come close?” Would not Aaron, the High Priest of Israel, already be right there in the front with the rest of the leadership? Why does Moses need to tell his brother in front of the community to, “Come close?”
The famed Torah commentator Rashi says that when Moses asked after Aaron the latter said that he was ashamed and afraid and because of his shame, could not possibly begin his service. (Rashi at Lev. 9:7) According to the rabbis, Aaron carried deep shame for leading the Israelites astray through the sin of Golden Calf. (Rambam) Here he was, after doing a terrible thing not able to come back from his darkest place.
It is exactly at this moment that Moses says, “Come close.” The entire Book of Leviticus teaches us that we are not our sins. You are not your addiction. You are not your failure. You are not your sin. You are not your disease. You are not your betrayal. What God wants more than anything is for you to break through your shame and transcend it. Bring your shame. Bring your sin. In your moment of darkness, God says, “Come close.”
There is a way to be good again. You have to take responsibility for your actions, but once you do, come back. Come close.
What happens when you overcome the worst thing you’ve ever done? The end of the chapter is telling. Moses helps Aaron overcome his shame, and he takes his place at God’s altar. He emerges from his service and raises his hands towards the people and blesses them. (Lev. 9:22) This is the sacred alchemy of religion. The greatest sinner can become the High Priest. The darkness of your shame can become the light of your blessing. From sorrow to sweetness. From death to life.
All you need is someone to say “Come close.”
Thank you so much for your weekly commentaries. I so enjoy reading them.