For Shame – Parshat Shemini 5779

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Going through the potty-training process with two kids has taught me a lot about the ways in which we display positive and negative reactions as parents. One of the biggest lessons for us has been the need to show some emotional self-control in order to keep up the positive reinforcement. For the most part, Shiri stopped wearing diapers fairly smoothly and had herself basically potty trained by three. In fact, it was the day of Matan’s bris she came home and told us she was done wearing diapers. Nights and naptimes were easy, but for some reason, regular trips to the bathroom during the day were a struggle. We’d have weeks of success, then three accidents in one day. This went on for almost a year. Of course we tried to be supportive and compassionate about the accidents, hoping that a sticker chart or other positive reinforcement would help move the process along. But when it kept happening, our patience often turned to frustration. Unfortunately, our frustrated response almost always elicited the same frustration in Shiri, and that led to her embarrassment and fear of even telling us what happened. You can see the cycle forming.

One of the important parenting lessons we learned was the way that we react to situations around us can affect the way others react. This lesson is clear in our portion this week too. This week we read Parshat Shemini, which details the specifics of kashrut and what it means to eat Jewishly. The text begins with the anointing and first acts of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, as they make their entrance into the celebrity of the priesthood, and continues with the specific details of how they should act in giving an offering.

Aaron was the original priest and was supposed to be taking on the role of leading sacrifices and other official business at the altar. However, given his rocky past as a leader, specifically the incident of the Golden Calf, initially he is afraid to take on the role. Moses has to call him specifically to come forward and participate in the purification offering of expiation. Aaron feels the shame of his past and is unsure of his fitness to lead.

Shame, however, is a defining characteristic of a moral human being. The mere fact that Aaron knows right from wrong and feels shame shows his morality and that he might have learned from his previous sins. Moses and God see the shame Aaron feels and respond with compassion. Our parshah this week reminds us that emotion is a two-way street. When we treat others with dignity, especially when it is clear that they have recognized their faults, then we are creating a world that is more just and more compassionate.

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