Praying to Avoid Embarrassment
In the prayer that is offered by the congregation between Shacharit and Musaf, on the Shabbat prior to the advent of a new Jewish month, commonly known as “Birchat HaChodesh” (the Blessing of the [New] Month), Jews pray that during the upcoming month, personal health, success. and fulfillment will be theirs:
May it be Your will, HaShem, our God and the God of our forefathers, that You inaugurate this month upon us for goodness and blessing.
May You give us long life—1) a life of peace, 2) a life of goodness, 3) a life of blessing, 4) a life of sustenance, 5) a life of physical health, 6) a life in which there is fear of Heaven and fear of sin, 7) a life in which there is no shame or humiliation, 8) a life of wealth and honor, 9) a life in which we will have love of Torah and fear of Heaven, 10) a life in which our heartfelt requests will be fulfilled for the good. Amen, Selah.
Although the Talmud does not record any comparable monthly prayer, Berachot 16b attributes to Rav a statement similar to Birchat HaChodesh, by which he would conclude his Amidah (Silent Devotion) each day. Although we do not include Rav’s prayer at the end of our own daily Amidot, his formulation appears to serve as the template for Birchat HaChodesh, and the Jewish values that are embedded within it.
On the Shabbat when I last recited this prayer in the synagogue, I was brought up short by one of the supplications: 7) “a life in which there is no shame or humiliation.” Clearly, no one welcomes being embarrassed. The Talmud even equates embarrassing someone with murdering him!
Bava Metzia 58b
A … (Rabbi) recited before R. Nachman b. Yitzchak: He who publicly shames his neighbor is as though he shed blood.
Whereupon he remarked to him: You say well, because I have seen it (i.e., such shaming,) the ruddiness departing and paleness supervening.
(When a person’s face blanches, it is tantamount to his having actually lost blood, a function of at least figurative, if not literal, death.)
Yet, in Berachot 17a, we read how another Rabbi at the conclusion of his Amidah, depicted himself as full of self-loathing and humiliation, and that this description was considered worthy enough to make its way into our Yom HaKippurim liturgy, recited at five different intervals over the course of the day!
Rava, on concluding his Amidah, added the following: My God, before I was formed, I was not worthy (to be formed), and now that I have been formed, I am as if I had not been formed. I am dust in my lifetime, all the more in my death. Behold I am before Thee like a vessel full of shame and humiliation. May it be Thy Will, O Lord my God, that I sin no more, and the sins I have committed before Thee, wipe out in Thy great mercies, but not through evil chastisements and diseases!
(We quietly recite the Yom HaKippurim confessional, along with this striking paragraph, at the end of Ma’ariv, Shacharit, Musaf, Minchah and Ne’ilah. See, e.g., The Koren Yom Kippur Machzor, pp. 119, 609, 799, 1037, and 1133.)
So, how can we pray not to be embarrassed when, by definition, standing before God, something of which ideally we are expected to constantly be aware, naturally generates within us shame and humiliation?
One possibility might be that the “embarrassment and humiliation” that we pray to avoid on Shabbat Mevorchim, is that which is brought about by our interactions with other human beings, as opposed to God Himself, with respect to Whom we, by definition, “simply can never measure up.” Every person should feel the same way standing before God. The Divine doesn’t even have to do anything in particular to engender such a sensibility on our parts. But this is not the case when we are in the company of others, who are able to exercise their free choice to determine how they will treat us. However, this explanation is undermined by the other requests that we make in the same prayer, e.g., 3), 6), 9), and 10), that are not exclusively within the purview of our fellow man. If the entire list of requests arises from the experience of standing before God, shouldn’t this also be true about 7)?
Furthermore, it seems to me, that a substantial difficulty remains even if the request is not meant to abrogate our unavoidable and proper sense of shame when confronting the Divine and His awesome power. Whether our patently unequal relationship with God is comparable to that of children vis-à-vis their parent, servants and their master, a flock before its shepherd, a bride with respect to her husband, etc. (see the liturgical poem “Ki Anu Amecha” before the beginning of the public confession on e.g., Ibid. p. 163,) should it ever be considered appropriate for one member of a true relationship to feel embarrassed before, let alone the target of humiliation by, the other? Wouldn’t we expect God, if He truly cares about us, to not only avoid causing us embarrassment, but, given His superiority and excellence, to constantly reassure His Creations that they should never feel humiliated before Him?
Additionally, if someone is determined to literally fulfill the spiritual principle of “emulating God” (based upon expressions such as what appears at the end of Deuteronomy 28:9 “…and you will walk in His ways,”) if God, by virtue of His mere presence, regularly embarrasses those with whom He interacts, does that mean that it’s proper for human beings to insensitively do so as well with respect to one another? Isn’t such a double-standard potentially confusing?
Perhaps our monthly prayer not to be “embarrassed” or “humiliated” requires a crucial, albeit unstated, clarification— we understandably hope we can avoid the types of embarrassment that will result in our becoming angry, alienated, and frustrated—only a masochist would welcome such feelings; however, we are prepared to embrace manifestations of these same emotions when and if they can play a significant role in our achieving the other things that we pray for—particularly “a life in which there is fear of Heaven and fear of sin.” Just like congenital analgesia (an insensitivity to pain) is detrimental to the overall physical welfare of a person because pain constitutes a signal that something may be very wrong, and therefore requires serious immediate attention, the emotion of embarrassment’s dynamic can assure that misjudgments will not be repeated, and one has the potential of learning for the future from his previous errors and shortcomings.
A Jewish value that emerges from this discussion is the desire on human beings’ parts for constant improvement, even if this necessitates a modicum of discomfort and even humiliation.
Rabbi Jack Bieler was ordained at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1974. He has been an administrator and faculty member of Orthodox Jewish day schools for over thirty years. He is a Jerusalem Fellow and has published and lectured widely on the philosophy of Modern Orthodox Jewish education. He has served as Rabbi of KMS since 1993 until his retirement in 2015. He blogs daily at https://firstname.lastname@example.org and his website can be accessed at https://rayanotyaakov.wordpress.com.
Rabbi Bieler has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted. Rabbi Bieler wrote one of the Blog entries selected as the three best for the each of the first three Quarters of 5779. You can see the most recent entry on the front page of the Jewish Values Online Website.
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