By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Yevamos 115 – How Embarrassing!
The Gemara recounts a horrifying tragedy. A fire broke out at the end of a chasuna in the chassan and kallah’s room. The kallah managed to escape and was crying out, “See my husband! See my husband!” People came and saw a dead body that was charred beyond recognition. There was also a separate, burned hand lying near the body.
Rava holds that we can allow this kallah to remarry. The fact that she was screaming for people to see what happened to her husband, coupled with the charred body and hand, comprises enough circumstantial evidence to assert that what clearly happened is that someone else tried to save the chassan but was unsuccessful and the former’s hand got severed in the process.
Rav Chiyah Bar Avin, on the other hand, disagrees. He maintains that the evidence is not conclusive enough. Why? For all we know, asserts Rav Chiyah Bar Avin, someone indeed came to save the chassan, and the dead, charred body belongs to that would-be savior. The hand belongs to the chassan who may have run away out of embarrassment that he is now disfigured.
At first glance, it seems a bit odd to entertain the notion that a chassan would run away – leaving his kallah as a miserable agunah – just because he is embarrassed about his disfigurement. Could it be that part of Rav Chiyah Bar Avin’s calculation included the consideration of some form of traumatic reaction on the part of the chassan to the sudden, tragic conflagration? Perhaps. What is clear, though, is that the chassan’s acute sense of shame figures prominently as the primary factor that forces us to consider a possibility that does not allow us to permit the kallah to remarry.
Embarrassment, we see, is a very powerful force within a person and can cause him to act in a way that is terribly damaging. Even self-inflicting. The chassan in this story certainly did not gain anything by running away. On the contrary, in addition to losing his kallah (who was not disfigured, by the way), he also lost everything. His family. His money. He is a penniless vagrant now. He has lost everything. And why? All because he could not handle the intense sense of shame that he felt he would bear were he to remain.
And you know what? That chassan almost certainly regretted his hasty action as soon as he had a minute to calm down. He probably regretted it deeply. But now what? If he returns, he’ll be even more embarrassed that he ran away!
So not only did his sense of embarrassment cause him to act in a counter-productive manner, it even caused him to act in an embarrassing manner and put him into an impossible situation of more extreme shame!
We all have embarrassing situations in our life. Sometimes it is just a matter of circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Sometimes it is our own slip-ups or mistakes. Sometimes it is other people’s actions – whether accidental or intentional – that cause us embarrassment. Realizing that we are prone to react to embarrassment in an irrational manner is important.
Embarrassment is powerful, but so is knowledge.
Awareness can go a long way towards mitigating the potential harm of knee-jerk reactions to embarrassment. When you consciously acknowledge the intensity of the emotion of shame, it makes it that much less impossibly-intimidating.
And the same holds true vis a vis how we take others’ reactions to embarrassment. If your friend, coworker, parent, sibling, spouse, child, or otherwise does something really not good out of intense shame, it’s a whole lot better on your part to react with empathy than with anger. The way you do that, first off, is by recognizing how real and sharp their suffering is. Embarrassment is a very powerful emotion, and we would be well off to not hold others to an exacting standard of accountability if something bad they did was a reflexive response to acute embarrassment.
Or ourselves, for that matter.
Had the chassan in the story acknowledged this fact, he may well have returned home after calming down. But he didn’t. He held himself accountable for the shameful act of running away in the midst of a sudden, terrifying calamity as if he had done so in the middle of a fine, sunny day. He therefore felt so embarrassed about what he did, that he felt stuck and couldn’t bring himself to go back home to his family and his kallah. And that, perhaps, is the greatest tragedy of all; because it didn’t have to be that way.
Yes, embarrassment is a very, very powerful emotion. It can cause us or others to behave or react in ways that cause much damage or heartache. However, understanding, acknowledging, and accepting this fact as an inherent part of our internal makeup is the first big step towards empowering and fortifying ourselves such that perhaps we will manage to survive and persevere through our embarrassing moments. Even the big ones.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.