Shame disconnects us – from others and also from ourselves. Disconnection is the diametric opposite of wholeness, as connection is the very mainspring of well-being.
A while back, I ran into an old friend and was amazed at how good she looked. Tragically, the impetus for her weight loss was due to the shocking heart attack of a close friend of hers who was young, but also very morbidly obese. Months later when I saw my friend again, it appeared she had regained the weight. While there are exceptions to the rule, when motivation to change stems merely from wanting to avoid a bad outcome, rather than obtaining a good result, the change is usually temporary.
Fearing a theoretical illness, or not wanting to wind up like someone we are close to who created his or her own premature death through neglect, can certainly galvanize us into a new mindset. The fear of a possible future bad “what-if” scenario, however, does not provide lasting motivation. What does serve the process of long-term change, on the other hand, is flipping the goal into something positive.
If you ever watch the show The Biggest Loser, you won’t hear the contestants talking about a justifiable fear of dropping dead or that they are sick and tired of being sick and tired. What they will talk about is how they want to be able to play with their children, to be around and be able to walk a child down the isle, or to be a good role model rather than a bad example. They want to feel confident, strong and healthy, and to be able to resume their former activities and physical hobbies. In the long run, being pulled towards the good serves better than running from the bad.
Similarly, when the “bad” has been internalized to oneself, and the motivation to change comes thoughts such as: “I’m not thin enough, disciplined enough, healthy enough, pretty enough, successful enough, rich enough, popular enough, worthy enough, etc., etc., etc.”, then this is coming from a place of lack. Whatever you are – it’s just not “enough” and that thought originates in fear and creates the emotion of inner shame. That is toxic to the process of healthy change.
Shame disconnects us – from others and also from ourselves. Disconnection is the diametric opposite of wholeness, as connection is the very mainspring of well-being. It should be self-evident that we can’t use persistent negativity to bring about a desired positive result, but we just keep falling into the trap. No matter how we try, we cannot shame and blame ourselves – or anyone else – into personal growth.
In the Torah portion Nasso, which means “single out,” Moses is commanded to “single out” and allocate different priestly duties to the descendants of two sub-tribes of the Levites: Gershon and Kehos. The descendants of Gershon were tasked with carrying the accoutrements of the Tabernacle (which housed the Ark), while the descendants of Kehos were entrusted with carrying the Ark itself.
Not only does the job description itself speak for the different level of sanctity between these two sub-tribes, but the descendants of Kehos are “singled out” before the descendants of Gershon. What’s strange is that this reverses the birth order, in that the descendants of Gershon, who was the first-born, would be expected to assume the duties that were allocated to the descendants of Kehos.
There is a beautiful Chassidic teaching that offers a deep insight to this question. To serve God, one must “turn away from evil” and “do good.” The name Gershon is related to the Hebrew word gerushin, which means “to divorce.” Thus the descendants of Gershon were to embody the idea of divorcing oneself and “turning away from evil.” Kehos, on the other hand, is derived from yikhas, “will gather,” alluding to the idea of gathering and accumulating good deeds – “doing good.”
What does that mean for us today? The birth order teaches us that at the outset, our initial impetus and motivation to change may very well be sourced in the avoidance of an undesirable outcome or overcoming something negative. I know that I have often been galvanized into action as a reaction to the bad behavior of others. Recoiling from what I don’t want to be or whom I don’t want to emulate has often been a powerful motivator for me.
What the Torah is teaching us, however, is that it is a higher spiritual priority to sustain our growth by being drawn to the good and what we see as positive. For example, if we grew up in a home with strife, we may be motivated not to repeat the patterns of hostility that we witnessed. It’s a “good” goal, but it’s vague and undefined. It is much more powerful, and much more likely to produce results, when we flip that into the positive and instead create the goal of creating a home imbued with positivity, loving connection and unconditional positive regard. Then we can take actual concrete steps to bring that about.
Throughout the Torah, God couples the commandments (even the negative ones) with the words, “Be Holy for I am holy.” The first of the Ten Commandments opens with the words, “I am the Lord Thy God,” meaning that every commandment that flows comes from creating relationship, connection with God. That is because holiness (wholeness) stems from connection – not disconnection – and striving to reach and actualize our highest selves.
I am not suggesting, however, that we only emulate the descendants of Kehos. Both ways are important. In fact, to be only one or the other can be unbalanced and even dangerous when taken to an extreme.
There is a third sub-tribe of the Levites mentioned in this week’s Torah portion – “Merari” – and while his descendants are not “singled out,” they are, nevertheless, “counted.” Being “counted” is not insignificant. As we read in last week’s Torah portion “Bamidbar,” taking a “headcount” is not a mathematical exercise, but to let us understand that we “count,” that each of us is unique, indispensable and singularly purposeful.
The way to growth is a two-sided coin – “avoiding evil” and “doing good.” The key, however, is to understand this polar duality, and to know when to be what. In comparison to Gershon and Kehos, the descendants of Merari were said to be more like the “simple folk.” Being able to tap into either of these energies and consciously choosing which will serve you best as you strive to reach your goals and accomplish your mission, however, is anything but simple.