Sunday, April 11, 2021

On Names and Shame

Black-and-white drawing an altar where a sacrificed goat is billowing smoke. A man in a turban stands in front.
Illustrator of Henry Davenport Northrop's "Treasures of the Bible," 1894, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


In the Torah portion Vayikra, God is telling the Israelites that if they do something wrong, they should make a guilt offering called an 'asham' (‪אָשָׁם). This involves sacrificing a goat andif the asham is similar to other offerings describedburning its fat in the temple. According to God's instructions, if someone inadvertently breaks one of the 613 rules described in the Torah, once they discover their mistake or 'realize their guilt,' they should make a guilt offering. The word 'asham' is used for both guilt and guilt offering. Once that happens, God says, the guilty party "shall be forgiven" (Leviticus 5:18).

The verb to forgive, 'slicha' (סָלַח) is related to the modern Hebrew way of saying "excuse me" or "I'm sorry." If only life were that simple.  

In the liturgy of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 'ashamnu,' meaning we have trespassed or we are guilty, is first on the long list of wrongs to which everyone in the synagogue confesses, aloud, together, and for which we ask forgiveness. The list itself is called the Ashamnu. In preparation for Yom Kippur, people traditionally apologize to others we've wronged. Also traditionally, though I doubt that people's emotions follow traditions or rules, if a person apologizes sincerely three times, you have to forgive them; otherwise, the sin, whatever it was, that they committed against you becomes yours. After taking those measures, hopefully, we're forgiven and can try again. 


It's no surprise that a word for guilt caught my attention in the Torah. I often feel guilty and wonder if I am guilty. In particular, I worry about cases where I might have done something wrong without meaning to. This is actually the sort of sin this portion is talking about. The language gets quite convoluted describing unwitting sins. For example, "Or when a person utters an oath [. . .] and, though he has known it, the fact has escaped him, but later he realizes his guilt in any of these matters—" (Leviticus 5:4) A person makes a mistake and has known it and it escapes him and he realizes it again . . .  The portion also talks about cases where people don't necessarily "realize their guilt" but "the sin of which [they are] guilty is brought to [their] knowledge" (Leviticus 4:23). This part sticks out to me because it brings another person into the matter of sin identification. 

What really gets me is when I hurt someone unintentionally and they think I did it on purpose. For example, last summer, my therapist thought I said something intended to "poke them," to rub salt in a wound of theirs, and so reacted with a flash of anger. But I hadn't been trying to hurt them. If I poked the therapist, it was inadvertent, more like bumping into someone. I was sorry that I'd hurt this person, and I apologized. I did what I could to make amends, yet I still felt ashamed, guilty. What if, as the therapist suggested, I was at some level being aggressive but couldn't acknowledge it or even consider the possibility? Was the therapist then bringing the sin to my knowledge? Who do you trust—yourself to 'realize your guilt' or someone else to bring it to your attention?

That this was a therapist-patient situation makes it complicated. But I can't think of an uncomplicated situation. 

It's so clear, like on TV, that people often do things to hurt others. Yet they insist that their intentions are good. In the Hulu series "Little Fires Everywhere," a main character, Elena, leaves her husband and children during a difficult time to drive to New York and dig up dirt about Mia, the woman to whom she's renting a house and whom she's hired to cook dinner for her daily. Also in New York, she has dinner with an old lover and invites him to her hotel room. Elena's husband has repeatedly told her that if she has a problem with Mia, she should just cut ties. But Elena prefers to get in closer to Mia because she's obsessed and curious. The more embroiled with Mia she gets, and her family gets by extension, the more reasons she has to justify the satisfaction of her personal curiosity. Elena claims that she's investigating Mia for the good of her family.

To the viewer, Elena's motives are obvious. She is doing what she wants to do because she wants to do it, not acting out of obligation. Yet Elena is blind to that, or chooses to be. More generally, to people outside a situation, the motives of the guilty party are often obvious. But I'm not 'the viewer' in my life; I'm me. I might miss something. I suppose the therapist whose feelings I hurt isn't 'the viewer' either.

I think it's important to be able to judge oneself. Given that different people have different opinions based on different experiences, relying on outside opinions to determine when you've done wrong is likely to trigger flip-flopping emotions and a constant need for feedback. Plus, it's far too easy to solicit opinions until you find the one that matches your own, then claim that you've been absolved by a wonderfully objective outside party. That's the worst of both worlds. 

Yet when others doubt me, or refuse to affirm my view, it's hard to bear. No, I didn't mean to poke my therapist, as far as I know. But what if I don't know? What if I did mean to? What if I am guilty? The whole thought process produces a feeling of shame.

And the Torah hasn't even gotten to intentional wrongdoing (or I haven't gotten there in it). 


A Google search for 'asham' pulls up this definition of guilt: "Feeling responsible or regretful for a perceived offense, real or imaginary." Real or imaginary. Maybe that explains why I feel bad even though I don't know exactly what category of wrongdoing—intentional or accidental—I've committed. Maybe I'd even feel guilty about an imaginary sin. According to this definition, that's possible.  


On Yom Kippur, everybody confesses to everything in the first person plural according to the notion that because we are all part of the same society our sins are communal. What one person has done, we have done. After consulting the High Holy Days prayer book my synagogue used this year, I see that the Ashamnu is a short version of the confession. The longer version has a different name, Al Chet, and includes the line translated as "We have sinned against you on purpose and by mistake." The word for 'by mistake' is 'shegagah' (‪‫שְׁגָגָה‬‬), a word for inadvertent sin that I recognize from Parashat Vayikra. ‬‬As for 'on purpose,' the Hebrew seems to be "בּזדונ." The "בּ" part means "by" or "through" or "with." Oh here we go: "זָדוֹן" (zadon) is a word meaning "pride, insolence, arrogance."  We have sinned against you inadvertently or arrogantly, I guess. Shamelessly.


No etymological reference I've found connects the English word 'ashamed' to 'asham' and 'ashamnu.' The actual etymology of ashamed is not enlightening. 

In a different Torah portion, I learn that a word that looks like ash (אֵשׁ) means fire in Hebrew. (It's pronounced 'aysh,' according to the Blue Letter Bible.) Most if not all of the offerings described in this part of the Torah, guilt offering included, are 'by fire.' Perhaps that is the root of asham, then? That doesn't really make sense, given that not all burnt offerings relate to sin. And it turns out that the Hebrew words 'ash,' and 'asham' aren't related. But in English 'ash' is the remains of a fire. Could Hebrew fire be its origin?

The question of what 'ash' might mean in Hebrew interests me because of my name. I'll never forget the time a teacher made a dance out of our names and decided to represent me by the tapping of an imaginary cigarette. I hate that smoking is what my name evokes. Fire, on the other hand—that's sexy. 

But the English word ash does not relate to Hebrew according to etymological sources. Nor is the ash tree one of the first to emerge after a fire, like a phoenix. I wish it were that, but it's not. 

Ashley, according to Wikipedia, is "an English unisex given name, originally a place name and surname. It is derived from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) words æsc (ash) and lēah (meadow, forest clearing)." Though in Hebrew, the Biblical name Leah means 'weary' or maybe also 'cow.' As someone posted on a word forum with regard to the name Leah, "If you don't like the meaning 'weary,' you can always go with 'meadow.'" 

"If you don't like the meaning […] you can always go with 'meadow.'" It has an aphoristic ring to it. When considering words, I certainly have a tendency to go with meanings and word histories that appeal to me in some way. An elaborate etymology, confirmed by multiple sources, that relates to nothing in my mental web just isn't very meaningful to me, with my particular language background and interests. On the other hand, word associations that have no basis in etymology, like that between 'ashamed' and 'asham,' fascinate me. If someone were paying me to investigate etymology, I'd have to be more disciplined. But I don't do this for money, and I'm not really investigating etymology, anyway. I'm looking for personal meaning, connection, between words and my life. I sometimes find that sense of connection in etymology or in what I'm reading, which at the moment happens to be the Torah.  


The question of what a name means, especially when the literal meanings are unappealing, is not unrelated to self-esteem or shame. I don't want to be a cigarette or a weary tree lacking phoenix potential. I don't want to be an ash meadow, either, or Ashley Wilkes, or a soap opera character named Ashley. I'd rather be me. 

And of course that is who I am, like it or not. When a person dies, what remains of them is their name. Not the literal name but what that name means to those who remember a person. That's something I think about when I hear the names of people who've died, recently or during that week in a year past, read aloud at the end of a Jewish service. The name is all that's said, not anything else about the person. What follows is the Mourner's Kaddish, a prayer that praises God and says nothing about death or those who've died. People say Kaddish 'for' those they remember, and I think, though I don't speak from my own experience on this, that saying Kaddish for someone can connect a mourner to God and to the loved one they're remembering. Yet the prayer is not 'about' the person who died. That person is represented by the few syllables of their name. What that name means is a question answered in the minds of those who hear it.