Vayeira (Gen. 18:1-22:24)/ Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Shame is a state we find ourselves in, whether we are aware or not, when we have committed morally deplorable actions. Morality, of course, is an entirely subjective device for easily categorizing right and wrong. When we find ourselves in a state of shame, because morality is subjective, that shame may be a cognizant shame just as well as it may be a shame applied from others. Regardless of the source of the shame, shame has a detrimental effect on the shamed. Shame is also a tool used in order to manipulate. We all have the power to impose our ideas of morality onto others and render them ashamed, whether in their own eyes or not they recognize their state as such.
There are several stories of shame in this portion, but the most devastating of all is the story of Lot and his two daughters. Lot was Abraham’s nephew that had lived in Sodom before God destroyed it. God spared Lot because God recognized Lot as the only righteous man in the city, in spite of his offering his daughters like property to a horde of angry men as a means of attempting to protect the strangers he was hosting. It is of course requisite that we understand that the characters in the Torah operated by the morals of their day, but even so, to not utilize our modern sensibilities when analyzing these stories would be a great disservice to the depth of our analyses. Upon fleeing Sodom, Lot and his two daughters proceeded to live in a cave secluded from the rest of the world. In this isolation, Lot’s daughters were led to believe they were the last people left living. They were also led to believe it was their duties as women to procreate. So the elder daughter devised a plan to get their father drunk and to bear his child in order to fulfill their responsibilities.
The easy analysis of this scenario is to enforce shame on Lot’s daughters for being so vile as to trick their father into lying with them. This shaming, however, is a horrendous abuse of the power to shame. It is too easy to place shame on those with less power, as women too often are, who commit what we consider shameful acts. Of course drugging and sleeping with your father is abhorrent. But Is it not more abhorrent to lead your children to believe there is no life beyond the dark cave you have relegated them too? Is it not more abhorrent still to raise children to believe their greatest purposes in life are to bear children? As free-willed organisms, compliance is not an excuse, but to charge the daughters too heavily is to blame the victims of a man’s wrongdoing. Lot is far more deserving of shame than his daughters, but even so, we have to be extraordinarily cautious before delivering shame onto anybody.
General Leia Organa and her twin brother Luke Skywalker exhibit the other form of shame throughout The Force Awakens. In the time between Episodes VI and VII, Leia and Han Solo had a son named Ben. Ben was extremely strong in the Force, as his family has been now for multiple generations, but he was also a deeply troubled teenager. Torn between the heroic legacy of his parents and uncle and the enormous scorn of his grandfather, Darth Vader, he fell easy victim to the influence of a dark figure named Snoke. Leia and Han, fearing they might lose their child forever if they did not send him away to train as a Jedi with Luke, made a decision that would haunt them forever. Ben joined a group known as the Knights of Ren, slaughtered everyone in Luke’s school, and became the most fearsome destructive force in the Galaxy. Throughout this horrendous time, Leia and Luke put none of the shame on Ben for the atrocities he commits. Instead, they place all of the shame on themselves for the poor parenting and mentoring they believe led Ben down that path.
The trouble with shame is that it is rarely placed properly, and even when it seemingly is, the negative externalities that ensue may well outweigh the positive. Shame is so fickle, knocking people down instead of building them up. Feeling ashamed, even when you feel it is most righteous, does nothing to alleviate the reason you feel ashamed in the first place. Whether the shame is like Luke and Leia’s where they feel compelled to shame themselves for the terrible action of another, or like Lot’s daughters where it is too easy to shame the most apparent wrongdoer when there truly was a deeper explanation, shame is rendered less as a tool for positive change and more as a fuel for a negative and dangerous cycle.
The cycle of shaming is permeating our post-election society in a very real way. Supporters of both sides are placing shame on supporters of the other for the decisions they made and the reasons why they made the. Just as well, many are shaming themselves and their own kind for bringing about the circumstances that lead to the election’s results. Shame is such a challenge in this situation. There should absolutely be an enormous shame placed on any and all that espouse hatred and incite violence over the rhetoric and result of the election and all of the decisions and policies made as results. People are also more than welcome to feel ashamed of themselves for not doing more or doing the right things to help bring about the circumstances they would more have preferred to see, regardless of their party affiliation. Yet, what use does shame have? Will those being shamed publicly over and over for the horrendous things they do and say ever be made to change their ways because of mere shaming? Will the self-imposed sense of shame drive people to take more and stronger actions beginning now and going into the future?
Shame is natural and in so many ways, necessary for the moral steering of human actions. Yet alone, it is too unlikely to be enough to bring about the attitudinal or policy changes we hope for them too. Shame is a starting point, an opportunity to recognize and express the ways we feel. We cannot allow it to be the end, lest we are trapped in a cycle of shaming others, shaming ourselves, and being shamed by others until nobody agrees and everybody ceases to communicate out of the shame felt all around.