Elie Weisel in his classic "Night", an autobiographical work describing his experiences in a slave labor camp during the Holocaust, shared a powerful moment that changed his life. He was sent to the Camp as a teen together with his father, a man he loved deeply and admired. He cared for his father in those times of great deprivation and looked out for him. Yet, he found that love and admiration, in those trying times, were not the only feelings he had for his father. Once after a long march, he could not find his father. He found himself feeling surprising and unbidden feelings within.
"Don't let me find him. If only I could get rid of this dead weight so that I could use all my strength to struggle for my own survival and only worry about myself. Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever."
In the Parsha of this week we encounter passages that predict the very reactions of Weisel in his story. The Torah tell us, in the verses that describe the horrific ordeals that will befall us if we fail to keep the faith and Torah, that we will suffer an extreme hunger,a hunger so severe we will eat our own dead children so as to stay alive.
"The man amongst you that is tender and very delicate will look with hostility towards his brother and towards the wife he loves and towards his remaining children..so that he will give them nothing of the flesh of his dead children ...because he has nothing left him due to the seige and oppression."
And the Torah goes on to say the woman/mother, one whose life had always been priveleged, will now feel the same resentment and hostility towards her husband and family that her husband felt towards her, with each focused on their own survival because of the awful circumstances.
What is the tragedy here? What curse is the Torah revealing to us, that in the severity of our hunger we will eat our dead children? The Torah aleady informed us of that in the earlier verse when it said "And you will eat the fruit of your own body, the flesh of your sons and daughters..." What is the new curse implied here?
The answer is,here there is a curse more subtle but equally painful. Here the curse is, not only will you need to resort to cannibalism to survive but the hunger and quest for survival will bring out the worst elements of your self. In pursuit of your needs, you will be resentful of the people you most love in the world. Not only will you not feel compassion towards them, you will come to despise them.Your own wife, your own children you will hate. And in that you will find shame, a shame of your self deep and awful, a shame that is a curse as profound as the lack of food and maybe worse. You who were so delicate, so much above petty resentments, a person of culture, will become as an animal with your feelings emerging more out of instinct rather than love.
Elie Weisel knew that curse. He knew the power of that shame of self. He knew that no matter how learned I may be, how cultured and civilized, how gentle and gracious, that underneath the surface lives a bare and ugly self, one who in the face of hardship has no more dignity than an animal. In the context of prolonged deprivation and staring at a threat to our very survival we will not only take what we can, we will hate the others who compete with us, even be they the people we loved most in the world. True we will often rise above the circumstances and be gracious towards the other, yet at a feelings level we know we carry a mean spirit and an envious heart.
The shame we are talking about is an existential shame. Its not a shame because of something we did. Its a shame because of who we are, because, when push come to shove, we are frail beings, not much more generous of spirit than animals. This is the shame we speak in our prayers during selichot and in the service of Yom Kippur. Its the shame we recite before G-d in the words "I am before you as a vessel full of shame and disgrace". Existentially we are compromised. It just takes the severe circumstances to bring it to the surface.
How vital this message is for me and I suspect for you as we stand less than two weeks before Rosh Hashanna. Most of us have puffed up images of ourselves. We demand our 'kavod', that others respect our dignity. We get insluted easily in as much as we perceive ourselves as worthy of courtesy and deference. We look at all we have accomplished and all we continue to do and we say to the other "how could you treat me as you did?". We demand an apology or harbor resentment. Families become divided, husbands and wives carry grudges, brothers and sisters don't speak, all because of felt slights that never get healed.
The Torah text of this week reveals to us that not only will our sinninng cause us hurt. The Torah teaches us something about who we are. Its tells us to forget about how important we consider ourselves, how learned, how sophisticated. Underneath it all we are not much better than an animal. Once compromised all the toppings will vanish and we will become focused exclusively on our own survival and resent any and all who jeapodize that survival. How dare we become huffy when we feel insulted. We are, in our own words "a vessel full of shame and disgrace". How can anyone then insult us?
There is no truth more important for us to know than the truth of our existential smallness. Moments where we face the extreme show us, like they did for Weisel, what frail creatures we are. Those are the moments of shame and hurt. But they also are moments oh so enlightening. In those moments we see ourselves without the ego's delusions. In those moments we become able let go of the slights, perceived insults, and disregard of others, not because they did no wrong, but because we realize we are not so important after all, that we need to not take ourselves so seriously.
How beautiful life would be if only we were aware of our existential shame and took it to heart. I pray we won't need to see our shame in order to feel it !