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Home » B'Ha'alotcha

Beha’alotcha: Constructive Shame

Submitted by on June 5, 2009 – 7:17 pmNo Comment | 6,220 views

A Royal Visit

As soon as the tabernacle was erected G-d instructed that seven lights be kindled on the candelabra every day. Surprised, Moses asked, “Dear G-d, you are the master of light, do you require light from us?” To which G-d replied with the following parable:

A king informed his best friend that he would join him at his home for dinner. The friend brought out his very best chair, bedecked his table with the nicest tablecloth and laid out his finest China, cutlery and crystal. When the King arrived he was attended by servants who illuminated his path with ornate lanterns carved in gold. The host immediately realized that his finest china paled to the king’s usual fare. Shamefacedly he hurried and put away everything he had prepared. When the king wondered aloud about the empty table the host explained that he was gripped by a sudden sense of shame when he realized that his finest would not measure up to the king’s expectations. The king then ordered that the beautiful ornate lanterns be put away and that only the host’s ordinary utensils will be used.

You see, G-d concluded, I might have access to superior light, but I decree that my light be set aside in favor of the candles you kindle for me. (1)constructive shame - innerstream


A closer analysis of the parable reveals an important point. The king did not set aside his lanterns before entering his friend’s home; he waited till his friend confessed his shame. This is because a king ought to be bedecked in splendor and attended to in luxurious grandeur. It was only when the host expressed his shame and inferiority that the king consented to be attended by his host’s simple fare.

This parable speaks to our relationship with G-d. We are tasked with creating an abode for the Divine within our hearts, families and homes. We, inherently imperfect and finite creatures, realize that despite our best efforts we cannot build an abode of Divine magnificence. As noble, pure and holy as our offerings might be they will never measure up to the transcendent brilliance of the Divine. When confronted with this truth we can either dismiss our limitations or we can recognize our inferiority and feel an inner sense of shame as we stand before G-d. This is not a shame born of guilt but a shame born of seeing the truly holy, wanting to measure up, but knowing that we can’t.

When we feel this inner sense of shame before G-d the king responds with gentle kindness. He comforts us and uplifts us. I have not asked you to measure up to the exalted levels of my perfect holiness, He soothes, I have merely asked that you live to the best of your potential. Now that you have done that, I will enjoy your accomplishments and reside in your home as if it were a royal suite in my supernal palace.

But it is only our sense of shame that stimulates this response from above.  Shame is an expression of our soul that is not satisfied with our best efforts because it knows it can be better. Shame is an acknowledgment of our limitations and a desire to break out of them. Because G-d created our limitations He is satisfied with us so long as we are honest about them.


The Chassidic masters taught that on Shabbos our souls report to G-d on our behavior during the week. As Shabbos enters and blankets the world with its holiness we realize that we are not adequately prepared for this holy day. We did not study as much Torah nor did we perform as many Mitzvos as we should have during the week. In fact we might even have transgressed once or twice. We might have lost our temper, gossiped or lashed out at a loved one. We might have coveted, been somewhat dishonest or allowed ourselves to sink into depression. How can we approach G-d on Shabbos when our behavior during the week did not at all reflect the holiness of this special day?

The answer, according to the chassidic masters lies in the parable we shared above. When we realize our own shortcomings and feel a sense of shame or inadequacy G-d smiles with benevolence and accepts us as we are; plain, simple and unadorned. We are not resplendent in silver and gold, our homes are not carved out in ornate style, but the king is still comfortable in our homes. He knows our limitations, He created them. The fact that we are ashamed of them indicates that we are aware of them too. It is not good to have something to feel ashamed about, but it is good that we feel shame. This is constructive shame.

This is why the first thing Adam and Eve experienced after eating from the forbidden fruit is shame. Shame is a message from the soul. It says, you have not lived up to your potential and you should have. It says you could have been better and next time you need to try harder. When Adam and Eve experienced shame G-d helped them fashion garments. This was G-d’s way of telling them that He would guide them back to their original glory. He would help them find that pristine place of pure innocence.

As He did to Adam and Eve when they experienced shame G-d responds to us when we feel shame. With shame there is momentum. With shame there is acknowledgment of our lapses. With shame there is acknowledgment of the holiness of which we are capable. With shame there is potential for change and with change comes improvement. When shame is experienced G-d accepts our week’s behavior as if it were perfect.  (2) (3)


  1. Midrash Tanchuma, Numbers 8:2
  2. Sefas Emes 5638, Numbers 8:2.