Healthy shame and destructive shame were discussed at the Queens Jewish Center before S’lichos on Motza’ei Shabbos, September 17.

If shame causes despair, worthlessness, and beating up oneself, then it’s not productive, said the speaker, Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman, a practicing licensed psychologist, assistant professor at Yeshiva University, and rabbinic staff member at Kingsway Jewish Center.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, said that past generations of Jews focused on their many negatives. Our generation of Jews wants to be more upbeat, “so we’re not going to focus on the negative.”

Chasidus distinguishes between “a reflective sorrow,” recognizing a missed opportunity, and “despair that leads to resignation, apathy, and hopelessness.” “They fool him by saying that he is already entrapped in the coils of sin,” said Michael Rosen in his book about the Gerrer Rebbe Simcha Bunim’s philosophy.

One should not see himself as an evil person, Rabbi Dr. Schiffman said, quoting Pirkei Avos. If he does, he might give up on himself. If one thinks more highly of himself, then he won’t lower himself with sin.

Sins are our behaviors or acts. “It’s not who we are. It’s not definitional,” said Rabbi Schiffman.

The Rambam said that we should feel bad about sin. “I did wrong, but I can do better. That’s what t’shuvah is all about,” said Rabbi Schiffman.

Apologizing for something specific to another person is more powerful than a general apology.

“It’s appropriate to feel negative emotions.” We don’t like feeling shame and regret, so having those feelings will prevent us from doing that same act again,” said Rabbi Schiffman.

“If shame motivates you, that’s good. If it gives you despair and resignation, stay away.

Sinning is done when there isn’t shame. “When I have that relationship and am aware of G-d, that’s going to help prevent sinning in the future,” said Rabbi Schiffman.

The Talmud (Maseches Shabbos) says how Jerusalem was destroyed only because people had no shame before each other. No one was ashamed or embarrassed by their actions and sins against man and G-d.

The Gemara also says that if one does not have fear or shame of sin, it is as if he or she was not at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.

However, it’s dangerous to feel depressed, hopeless, and worthless. “We all have good, and we are all made in the image of G-d,” said Rabbi Dr. Schiffman.

The middle ground is feeling remorse for our sin but knowing that our core is good and we were made in G-d’s image.

“We should not be focusing on too many negative things when it comes to t’shuvah.” We need to remember our positive qualities and deeds, too,” said Rabbi Dr. Schiffman

The Maharal forbids making other people feel shame or embarrassment. Everyone has a tzelem Elokim (a Divine portion).

By David Schneier