A mural memorializing George Floyd in Minneapolis by Xena Goldman, Cadex Herrera and Greta McLain. (Photo/Lorie Shaull vai Flickr)
A mural memorializing George Floyd in Minneapolis by Xena Goldman, Cadex Herrera and Greta McLain. (Photo/Lorie Shaull vai Flickr)

This week is Shabbat Shuvah — a time to practice creative discomfort

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Deuteronomy 31:1-30

Author’s note: This Torah portion is read this year on 9/11. We grieve for those who were murdered that day. As a nation, we are embarrassed by the events 20 years later. It would be a shame for us not to deeply reflect on the entirety of these decades. May our creative discomfort, should we achieve it, make us a better nation.

As I write this, it is near the end of the Hebrew month of Elul and the High Holy Days are coming. The Wise Folk of Chelm are debating in-person services or alternatives. The Rabbi of Chelm is sitting far away, masked during the pandemic, in a conversation in the courtyard, in a chair. Six feet away there is another chair. A young man sits there wearing a mask.

Young man: I don’t understand Shabbat Shuvah.

Rabbi: It’s the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and it has a special Haftarah reading, Hosea 14: “Turn back, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled in your crime. Take words with you and turn back to the Lord.” And Micah 7:18: “Who is a God like You dismissing crime and forgiving trespass.” Shuvah, turning back, works. We return and God forgives.

Yes, but what does Shuvah mean?

I will use rabbi-talk. Please rise.

What? I’m in the courtyard, not the synagogue.

Works here, too. Please, rise. Good. Look at the place you were sitting. Now, please be seated, shev.

You’re good at these directions.

I’ve been practicing. Sit very comfortably, now you are mit-yashev, sitting down. Now, close your eyes and recall a moment when you experienced discomfort, shame or embarrassment. When you were knocked off your comfortable seat. Without opening your eyes, stand up and walk away from your seat; I will make sure you are safe. Stop. Turn around three times. Now, open your eyes, look around for your seat. Don’t move. Measure the distance between you and your seat. Imagine getting back there. What will it take to shuv, to return? How many steps? Are there things in your way? Take a breath and carefully walk back. Focus on each step. Stand by your chair. Now, shev, sit. That journey is teshuvah. Getting back to a place we would like to be. Although we never arrive the same as when we left.

Why did you ask me to remember discomfort, shame or embarrassment?

Because we all should. And that’s a good thing.

Like body shaming?

No! People who body shame should be ashamed.

What about politicians who lie shamelessly?

People who feel no shame are ill. But there is more. Not only do we need to feel shame, we also need to learn how to dwell in discomfort. Then take action. Creative discomfort. Listen to this teaching from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“The root of any religious faith is a sense of embarrassment, of inadequacy. I would cultivate a sense of embarrassment. It would be a great calamity for humanity if the sense of embarrassment disappeared, if everybody was an all-rightnik, with an answer to every problem. We have no answer to ultimate problems. We really don’t know. In this not knowing, in this sense of embarrassment, lies the key to opening the wells of creativity. Those who have no embarrassment remain sterile. We must develop this contrition or sense of embarrassment.” (From Heschel’s essay “No Time for Neutrality” in his book “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity”)

Heschel really says that embarrassment leads to creativity? 

Creativity to open the mind to build a path to action. Bachya ibn Pakuda (born in 1040 in what is now Spain) wrote that shame is important to begin shuvah. “Reflect on the feeling of shame with which the human alone has been endowed. How high is its value! … For whoever commits any of the disgraceful acts which we have mentioned, does so only when he has cast off the garment of shame. As Torah said: ‘Yea, they are not at all ashamed, neither know they how to blush’ (Jeremiah 6:15), and ‘The sinner knows no shame’ (Zephaniah 3:5).” Shame, honest reflection, creative discomfort, casting off the garment of shame by taking action, teshuvah.

Have you been ashamed?

Yes. I am haunted by the video of the last nine minutes of the life of George Floyd, climate change, homelessness, political oppression, military occupation. I am sitting in my discomfort and shame. I am working on my own shuvah. Planning my return … making small commitments to act. Seeking my own small teshuvah. What is yours?

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].