Jewish Journal

Survivors Guilt after the Flood: Shame and Healing

by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

October 23, 2012 | 5:57 pm

The flood has ended. The waters have dried up. The survivors completed their aveilut (year of mourning) for all those who passed and leave the ark to attempt to rebuild the world. Noah, the captain and leader, exits and – what does he do? He gets drunk. In fact, he gets so drunk that his sons find him unclothed in his tent. Cham enters the tent, looks at his father naked and then tells his brothers, Shem and Yafet, who walk in backwards, without looking, and virtuously cover their father with a blanket.

From a psychological perspective, how do we understand these different reactions to catastrophe and its aftermath?

Noah is a survivor; having witnessed the destruction of all he knew, he has profound survivor’s guilt. He is broken, so he drinks, and his sons react differently to his moment of vulnerability. Cham is able to see his father’s pain and so he is willing to look upon the results of that pain Shem and Yafet, on the other hand, are unable to accept seeing their father in this condition, so they refuse to. Cham is a model for us, as he is courageous enough to see his father as he truly is at that moment – pained, ashamed, and naked. Where he goes wrong is in telling his brothers about it. He fails to help, yet sometimes we may hurt someone less by staring at her scar than by looking away.

At some point, we must realize that our parents are fallible and flawed, like all humans. We must also come to realize this about all of our role models, friends, and family members. We cannot hold close ones or heroes up as perfect; if we do, we inevitably become disappointed when we discover their imperfections, and risk becoming cruel and hurting them because we have been unwilling to see their humanity and vulnerability from the start, treating them as liars, as if they had broken promises they never made, falsely presenting themselves as perfect when in fact we were the only ones who thought them so.

This is what happens to Noah: With the flood and the destruction of the entire world, he finally discovers that the world was not a perfect place. Unlike his brothers, Cham follows this path and sees the imperfections in his father and is able to face this loss of innocence and the harsh truth that his father is, in the end, human. It takes courage to deal with this loss with equanimity, as it amounts to a loss of security. Furthermore, in looking upon his father’s nakedness Cham showed that he was trying to to understand the trauma that must have led to this turn of events. Shem and Yafet may be more “modest” than Cham, but in covering Noah and avoiding looking at him, they show they prefer to avoid understanding their fellow’s trauma, hide from the truth, and cover up that which they cannot deal with.

At the end of this story Cham is cursed by his father. I would suggest that he is not cursed metaphysically but practically and psychologically, in that he must now live with the pain of seeing the nakedness of his father and the cruelty of the world that led to it. The blindfold has been taken off.

Rabbi Daniel Reifman suggests that Noah gets naked because he believes he is like Adam (the first person who lived in the Garden of Eden without clothes), and that he is the new first man of the world. Cham’s recognition of his nudity reminds him that he cannot (and humanity can never) return to that state of pure spiritual bliss or a life without feeling shame.

People often exploit another’s vulnerability in order to shame them. In Franz Kafka’s Hunger Artist, a man starves himself and locks himself in a cage. Others pay to walk by and stare, getting pleasure from observing him. Kafka teaches that a sick part of human nature causes us to enjoy, on some level, seeing the abasement of others. Similarly, the press or gossip often takes private information and makes it public, exposing someone’s shame and transferring ownership of an individual’s image to the public. A contemporary scholar of shame, Gershen Kaufman, wrote: "Shame is the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within.” As a result, shame can isolate the individual. Legal scholar Martha Nussbaum wrote: “Shame involves the realization that one is weak and inadequate in some ways in which one expects oneself to be adequate. Its reflex is to hide from the eyes of those who will see one’s deficiency, to cover it up.” One example of shame is being seen when we do not know we are being observed. We may sing in the shower, and not know that someone outside can hear us, and then we discover that we were heard. We may have been comfortable with our singing alone, but ashamed that we were not in control of who heard us.

Shame should be distinguished from guilt. The root of the word shame is actually thought to derive from a word meaning "to cover.” Covering oneself, literally or figuratively, is a natural expression of shame. Distinguishing between shame and guilt, researchers Fossum and Mason write in Facing Shame that "While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one's actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person." Shame is so painful because it’s not external; rather it’s about one’s core personhood, the value of one’s self.

Aaron Hass, an academic at California State University, Wrote: “An even more insidious and self-destructive element than guilt has also been observed in survivors of the Holocaust. One can balance guilt with restitution. Shame, however, results in a certain withdrawal, in a belief that one is not worth consideration. For the survivor who experiences shame, there is a further disbarment from humanity.”

In shame, people feel exposed in their pain. We must learn to look while we simultaneously honor. If the rabbis teach that to shame another is akin to murder, then to honor the vulnerable is to save a life.

To be sure, Jewish law demands the right to privacy. Rabbi Norman Lamm explained this well: "Unauthorized disclosure, whether the original information was received by complete consent or by illegal intrusion, whether ethically or unethically, remains prohibited by the Halachah.” He continues: “The Halachah insists upon the responsibility of each individual not to put himself into a position where he can pry into his neighbor's personal domain, and this responsibility can be enforced by the courts... the Halachah comprises more than civil law; it includes a sublime moral code. And its legal limit on voyeurism is matched by its ethical curb on the citizen's potential exhibitionism. It regards privacy not only as a legal right but also as a moral duty. We are bidden to protect our own privacy from the eyes and ears of our neighbors.”

The right to privacy is always honored yet some realities that were meant to be private can become exposed to us. When the pain of another becomes revealed to us, we cannot hide from it. We can only look, support, and honor the dignity of the other.

Shem and Yafet teach us that there are some things we do not look at.  Cham teaches us that it is precisely some of these same things that we must look at. They teach us that we must cover the vulnerable; he teaches us that we must first look at them and recognize their humanity and their trauma.

In addition to becoming more sensitive about how we talk about others’ vulnerabilities, we should become more willing to share our vulnerabilities with those we care about. If we, like Noah, do not, they will inevitably become exposed at times and ways we do not want.

The rabbis teach that the flood occurred because the generation no longer had any shame for their theft or promiscuity: “There is always hope for the man who is capable of being ashamed” (Nedarim 20a). And that shame should not only be socially induced but also come from our conscience and awareness of G-d’s presence: “There is a great difference between the man who feels shame in his soul and the man who is ashamed only before his fellow man” (Ta’anit 15a).

A story is told of Rav Yisrael Salanter (the founder of the Mussar movement). On Shabbat, Rabbi Yisrael was stuck in Kovno. The whole town offered to house him, but he decided to stay with a childless baker, as that way he would not take another’s food portion on Shabbat. This baker, while observant, was no scholar. As he welcomed the honored rabbi into his house, he exclaimed to his wife: "The challahs are not covered! Why must I always remind you to cover the challahs?" The embarrassed wife, recognizing the rabbi, began to weep as she quickly covered the challahs. When the baker asked Rav Yisrael to honor them by reciting the Kiddush, the rabbi inquired: "Can you tell me why we cover the challahs?" "I know that answer," the baker replied. "Even a small child knows that. If at the table there are a variety of foods, then we say the first blessing over the bread, and then we do not have to make another blessing. However, on Shabbat night, the first blessing must be over the wine. We must not shame the challah, as it expects the first blessing, so we must cover her over until we have blessed the wine." Rav Salanter gave the baker a sharp rebuke. "Why do you not hear what your mouth speaks?" he asked. "Do you not think that our Jewish tradition understands that a challah has no feelings and cannot be embarrassed? You must understand that our laws seek to sensitize us to the human feelings: our friends, our neighbors, and—above all—our wives!”

Here, once again, is a primary purpose of Jewish ritual – to teach us over and over the sensitivity of the human emotions and the value of kavod habriot (honoring others). May we have the courage to see the true vulnerability of those we love and the sensitivity to cover them, honor them, and share ourselves with them as well. In this way, we rebuild the world and the human spirit after the flood.


Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz...

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