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Teshuva; Shame versus Guilt; Joseph and his Brothers


We beat our chests and recite a long list of our most innocuous sins. Is this a healthy religious attitude? Are we nurturing a toxic relationship with ourselves, God and our fellow human beings? Is this, in the words of psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, (a symptom of ‘authoritarian religion’?

What is the place of guilt in tradition and is there a way of redeeming its natural corollary – helplessness, submission and self-hate? Is there a precedent in our tradition for constructive guilt as opposed to destructive guilt?

When Adam and Eve ate from the tree, they felt an immediate sense of shame. What has been created is a dissonance, a duality of self between the person I want to be and the person I know I am. They are ashamed of their disobedience and become immediately aware that their ‘outer’ existence does not match their ‘inner’ self. They endeavor to ‘cover’ themselves with all manner of creative but inadequate layers in order to escape the chasm between the two perceptions of self (don’t we all do that at times – a guilty conscience leads to blame and shame).

So how do we nurture a culture that takes responsibility without the toxicity of destructive shame? How do we nurture a healthy, constructive and authentically religious path that navigates the gap between who we are and who we want to be?

Brené Brown the American populist professor shame researcher speaks about the difference between shame and guilt. She contends that “when I feel shame, I feel that I am bad and when I feel guilt, I recognize that I did something bad. People who feel shame believe their entire make up is the bad action they committed and they are ‘put to shame’ from a finger pointed or an external expectation. Someone who feels healthy guilt recognizes that their bad action does not define them but rather can be channeled towards constructive reframing and healthy growth. The feelings of guilt come from within and the resolve to improve is motivated by an inner drive.”


Teshuva is the process of working destructive guilt into constructive guilt – shame into change.


As opposed to the Christian concept of absolution, the Jewish notion of Teshuva is an ongoing perennial journey and process. We are all baalei teshuva, since throughout our lives we are on a journey of return – return to God and to our inner conscience. We want to return to the moment before the dissonance between the person we are and the person we want to become.

Someone motivated by shame wants penitence – an immediate and full forgiveness and resolution. Someone motivated by guilt is aware that he must use his failing towards growth and that it requires more than a simple act of penitence or resolution. The prophet Yirmiyahu famously berated the people of Israel for actually bringing sacrifices – he understood that they were using sacrificial service as a means of superficial penitence rather than a catalyst towards inner change. His harsh words accuse the people of transforming the Temple into a “den of robbers”:

Will you steal, murder, fornicate, swear falsely, offer sacrifices to Baal, and pursue other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, “we are saved,” so that you might continue to commit all of these abominations? Has this house that is called by My name become a den of robbers in your eyes? I myself have observed this, declares the Lord. (Yirmiyahu 7: 9-11)

The word ‘chet’ – sin – means to miss the target. The word aveira means to pass by. In the Torah man is exiled after the very first ‘sin’. Sin leads to exile, to dislocation or alienation. As we have mentioned, the ‘ayeka’ call is not asking ‘what have you done wrong’ but rather ‘where are you’?. You have become alienated and dislocated from your place, from your inner voice and inner orientation.

The beauty of Judaism is that we do not believe in the fall of man. In fact, according to a midrash in Tehillim Rabba, teshuva precedes the creation of the world. Humankind cannot exist without teshuva, for our very essence, our inner make up is never determined. Each human being ALWAYS has the ability to tap into their ideal self, their potential for goodness and change. We are created in the image of God and our purpose is to return to that inner core.

And it is that inner core, that inner voice that determines the difference between shame and guilt. Rabbi Sacks states it succinctly when he describes cultures of shame and guilt: “In shame cultures what matters is what other people think of you: the embarrassment, the ignominy, the loss of face. Whereas in guilt cultures it’s what the inner voice of conscience tells you. In shame cultures we’re actors playing our part on the public stage. In guilt cultures we’re engaged in inner conversation with the better angels of our nature.”

Shame is the focus on the external, guilt is the focus on the internal. When we are shamed, we change for others. When we feel guilt, we change for ourselves and for the Divine image we seek to emulate. And that makes all the difference.

This distinction is echoed in the story of Yosef. He developed from a נער - a lad (who, according to Rashi, was vain and self-obsessed and whose self-definition emanated from the external clothes he had been gifted) to a humble, acutely self-aware and empathetic person which is why he is Yosef Hatzadik. This transformed Yosef understands the importance of a healthy approach to repentance. He is aware that the brothers perceive their reality through the prism of fate, of Divine retribution and deep shame. One need only look at their comments throughout the narrative to appreciate this mindset:

    וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל אָחִיו אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל אָחִינוּ אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְּהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ וְלֹא שָׁמָעְנוּ עַל כֵּן בָּאָה אֵלֵינוּ הַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת They said to one another, “We are guilty, guilty because of what we did to our brother. We saw his suffering when he pleaded with us but we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us.” (Gen. 42:21)

Reuven’s response is emblematic of a shame-filled approach that automatically leads to blame and repression:

וַיַּעַן רְאוּבֵן אֹתָם לֵאמֹר הֲלוֹא אָמַרְתִּי אֲלֵיכֶם לֵאמֹר אַל תֶּחֶטְאוּ בַיֶּלֶד וְלֹא שְׁמַעְתֶּם וְגַם דָּמוֹ הִנֵּה נִדְרָשׁ

Then Reuven spoke up: Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you would not listen. Now comes the reckoning for his blood. (Gen. 42:22)

Even more outrageous was Reuven’s pledge to his father that he can kill his two sons if he does not return Binyamin - which reflects the deep shame and punitive retribution he felt he deserved.

Yosef understood that if he revealed himself immediately to his brothers they would be crippled by shame which would ultimately destroy them and destroy any potential for true and authentic growth. Instead, he hides his personality and manufactures a situation in which the brothers can recognise that they have indeed changed, that they are not the youths they were many years ago when they betrayed their brother and father. Yosef appropriates a narrative, a new frame through which the brothers can recall their past and their guilt-ridden conscience. He speaks of God and of Divine destiny. He tells them that they are not to blame but rather it was part of a larger picture; they should not feel anger towards themselves. “I am your brother Yosef, whom you sold into Egypt.... It was not you who sent me here, but God...”. (Gen. 45:4,8)

Through the reframing of the past, Joseph seeks to offer them a narrative that encourages them to seek the Divine in the situation and reframe their relationship to him. Rather than viewing the Divine as a punitive being, he encourages them to see the Divine as a guiding voice, as an agency within which they can be nurtured towards accountability, self-mastery and growth. It is the difference between shame and guilt - shame being imposed from the outside and guilt being a feeling nurtured from within. This is what Yosef attained and what he wants the brothers to achieve for themselves. In reality however, unlike Yosef, the brothers never achieve full self-redemption. They remain in the perennial composure of shame long after Joseph revealed himself. They have lived so long under its cloud it has become almost impossible to shake off.

Yosef aims to teach that for true repentance to occur, we must first forgive ourselves, face our past, integrate events we feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about, admit what we may have done or been and affirm what we are. We must find the Divine spark within and shake off the excess concern of the outside gaze. Only then we move from a place of shame to one of guilt, and then to control and finally to agency and growth.

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