Bereshit: Nu? Ain’t hubris "a-shame"?

Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden, but had no consciousness of this and thus felt no shame -- until they knowingly violated G-d’s command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Their “eyes were opened” and they sewed fig leaves as girdles. When they then heard G-d’s voice in the Garden, they hid. (Gen. 2:25, 3:7-10).

Why did they hide?

The logical reason, it seems to me, is that they feared that G-d was coming to exact the promised punishment. “On the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.” (Gen. 2:17). But if not mortal fear, the next most likely motivation for their hiding would, or should, have been deep shame at having violated the one and only prohibition which their Creator had imposed.

But neither of those explanations matches what Adam said when questioned by G-d. He replied: “I was afraid because I am naked.”

What a “revealing” response! Adam was motivated more by embarrassment at his appearance than at the prospect of his imminent death! More by shame that someone might see him (who, G-d? Eve?? animals?) than at having broken his Creator’s law and/or disappointed Him! 

Adam was created in the image of G-d, as are we. So, is Adam’s admission not a profound commentary upon our motivations, as well?  It often seems that we are more concerned with superficial matters, especially how others perceive us – than with our conduct. We are motivated more by shame-avoidance than by doing the right thing. Failing to acknowledge fault because it will be embarrassing is a prime example.

“Hubris” means excessive pride or self-confidence. But when I look at that word, I also think of its Hebrew homonym “Hoo-brit,” which might be translated as “he” [man] is a covenant.” In other words, we engage in “Hubris” when we forget “Hoo-brit.” We stray from the purpose of our existence when we, like Adam, care more about how others perceive us than about how we act.

But, ironically, our actions are the most important determinant of how people perceive us. When our conduct is bad, people see that we, like the “Emperor,” have no “clothes.”  

Perhaps this explains why we pray that we “never again be shamed” in the “Ahavah Rabah” prayer that we recite each morning before the Sh’ma, and also in the Birkat Hamazon after ever meal. [“v’lo nevosh l’olam valed; s’lo nevosh … l’olam va’ed].  Not feeling ashamed, it seems, is a fundamental, even (per Adam) the most basic human desire, and our daily liturgy recognizes it.  

So, beyond prayer, what should our strategy be for avoiding shame? Not by not having a conscience (which would make us, in common parlance, sociopaths), but by “Lov[ing] our fellows as ourself,” “[Not doing] to others what is hateful to us,” and by “Do[ing] the right and the good.”

Some righteous people act in accordance with these and similar mitzvoth because G-d commanded it. G-d/Torah could have modeled that holy behavior by Adam expressing shame for having transgressed G-d's explicit prohibition, not because he was ashamed of being naked. But most of us live closer to Adam’s plane of emotion, fearing embarrassment most of all. Right conduct is, for us, therefore, the most likely means to avoid shame.

During the recent High Holidays, we acknowledged our guilt with a collective “Ashamnu.” “Ashamnu” in Hebrew means “we are guilty, we have sinned, we have trespassed.” But again using sound to translate into English, we can hear “Asham-nu” as “we are ashamed.” Isn't that how we should feel when we transgress?

G-d clothed Adam and Eve before exiling them from the Garden. (Gen 3:21) We can consider Torah's behavioral rules to be our most important “clothes” and, by wearing them, Be’ezrat Hashem, never feel ashamed again.

Shabbat shalom from Sderot, Israel.

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3