Just as “he” and “they” are vastly different, so too are “guilt” and “shame.”
Table for Five: Nasso
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
They shall confess the sin they committed, and make restitution for the principal amount of his guilt, add its fifth to it, and give it to the one against whom he was guilty.
– Num. 5:7
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, VP of Community Engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California
This verse contains a glaring grammatical incongruity. It starts in the plural: “They will confess their sin” but continues in the singular, “he will make restitution.”
In Iturei Hatorah, this explanation is given. “There are many people who are willing to confess to having taken money” (so that part of the verse is plural), but few are willing to pay back what they stole (so that part of the verse is singular).
This teaching reflects a deep truth.
Many are those who are willing to complain about a problem, but few are those who volunteer to work on resolving the issue. Our culture is infatuated with self-revelation, but this verse reminds us that telling one’s story alone is insufficient. After acknowledging the depth of a difficulty, the painful work of repair must begin.
As I write this column, I am about to attend the zoom of the funeral for a beloved mentor, Rabbi Morley Feinstein, of blessed memory, who served as rabbi of University Synagogue and president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. Rabbi Morley’s love of people was evident in his every word and action. He was a master of the arts of schmoozing, teaching, living, activism, mentorship, music, Torah, family, friendship, community, menschlekeit, and love. Few souls reach his level of righteousness. I only wish there were many more souls like him.
In a world where many give lip-service but few roll up their sleeves to do the work, let’s aspire to be among the few.
Dini Coopersmith, Torah Teacher, Women’s Trip Director, www.reconnectiontrips.com
The pasuk reads: “they shall confess their sin, and make restitution for the guilt of his head(principal amount)”. A chassidic commentary “megaleh amukot” quoted by the Shvilei Pinchas says the following: the Talmud (Shabbat 156a) explains the reason for a head covering (a yarmulka), that the Shechina, the Divine Presence rests above one’s head and in order to show respect/fear of God, one should cover one’s head. Furthermore, the Zohar says that the Shechina is also represented by the last letter “heh” of God’s name yud, heh, vav, heh. When someone sins, he causes the Shechina to depart from above his head, effectively damaging the “heh” from Hashem’s name. (When Adam sinned, Hashem approached him with the word: “Ayecha”, which can be read “Eich” how did you damage and remove the “heh” from above your head?)
Now we reach our verse: If one should sin, they should at first confess the sin, start the process of teshuva, make restitution for the guilt of his head, that he caused Hashem to remove His Divine Presence from his head. By doing teshuva, one “adds its fifth to it”, meaning brings back the “heh” which has the numerical value of 5, the divine Shechina to rest upon his head again, as it was before the sin.
This is also a way to read the word “teshuva”: tashuv heh. The heh shall return. When we repent, the Shechina returns to its rightful place above our heads.
May we always merit to feel the Shechina upon our heads!
Dr. David Porush, Student, teacher, and writer at davidporush.com
Americans jail far more of themselves per capita than any other nation in the world, including El Salvador, Rwanda and Cuba, so it’s hard for us to imagine a criminal justice system without jails. Yet Torah does just that. It prescribes all sorts of penalties – repayments and fines, Temple sacrifices, flogging, and four terrible forms of capital punishment. If you rob me, confess your guilt, pay me back, then add another 20% to quell my desire for revenge and as a token for heaven. But you’re not going to jail.
It’s not as if the Torah didn’t know about jails. It mandates detention for some but only before trial or eventual punishment. Joseph languishes for years in Pharaoh’s dungeon. But Torah envisions a system of justice founded on a radically new vision of human nature, one that newly freed slaves might especially appreciate. Jail takes away the most basic right to freedom while nurturing the evil instinct for revenge. Jailing the guilty, as much as we dress it up as constructive, is fundamentally punitive, retaliatory, and hopeless. If the body remains free in society, without coercion the soul can learn to choose good over evil.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt’l advocated for national prison reform in America impelled by this insight. Justice succeeds only when it has a chance to rehabilitate the individual soul. After all, what a waste of time to rot in jail like Joseph when we can work to bring this world closer to the next.
Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Sinai Temple
Many of us use the words guilt and shame interchangeably. They are actually very different concepts. Guilt is the emotion we feel when we perceive we have done something wrong. When we treat someone improperly. Guilt is something we put on ourselves.
Shame is the emotion we feel when someone else determines we have done something wrong and leads us to see a lesser version of ourselves. Shame often occurs when we are nudged into a corner, causing us to feel inadequate, powerless, small.
It is easy to see where the two concepts blur. And yet, sometimes, feeling guilty can be healthy. A guilty conscience may encourage someone to choose a wiser path. But a shameful persona encourages inward burrowing, dissociation from reality, the creation of thick walls that prevent discovery, revelation, understanding and growth.
Interestingly, the Torah in this context speaks about the self-realization of one’s mistakes. Recognizing the distancing a person causes between themselves, God, and others when they enact a wrongdoing. A distancing that is repaired when the person analyzes their behavior and knows they have tripped somewhere along the way. A conclusion that involves both soulful introspection and remorse.
But shaming someone into remorse is for naught. Teshuvah occurs when a person is enticed with “sin” and intentionally turns the other way. Shame is a negative psychological tool that allows one human to gain stature over another. For this rabbi, a guilty conscience wins every time.
Shame just doesn’t belong in this blessed world.
Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, BCC / B’nai David-Judea Congregation
In the Hebrew, our verse begins in the plural (“they shall confess the sins they committed”), and then shifts midway into the singular (“and he shall make restitution…and he shall give”). Or HaChayim explains the intention behind this grammatical change. He teaches that the plural is used with regard to the confession of sin because everyone confessing sin is equal. How so? The confessors are coming from the same emotional place– shame, guilt, sorrow, fear– from a rupture in a relationship. But this is not the case with repairing and making restitution.
Each wrong is unique, each pain is specific and should not be dealt with in the plural, but rather in the singular. To me, a detail as small as this grammatical shift reveals immense sensitivity and moral clarity in our Torah and, in turn, what it means for words to be Divine.
To be in the shoes of the confessor is to be held accountable in the context of a forgiving and principled community. And to be in the shoes of the receiver is to be fully seen in concrete losses suffered as well as in the need for objective and subjective atonement.
What if we approached our interactions, verbal and nonverbal, with such attention to detail, with such simultaneous spiritual resolve and vulnerability? Jewish tradition requires partnership between words and deeds. Our text invites us to internalize both the plural and the singular in the process of repair– challenging us to bring our words to fruition.
With thanks to Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, Dini Coopersmith, Dr. David Porush, Rabbi Nicole Guzik and Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn.
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