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Positively Embarrassing: The Depth of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Insight

By the beginning of the eighties, the masses of people who thronged to hear and speak with the Lubavitcher Rebbe made it nearly impossible to have a yechidus – a personal conversation – with him. Nonetheless, the public was thirsty to personally see and hear the Rebbe. And so the Rebbe’s famous Sunday dollar-handouts was born. Thousands of people from throughout the world would wait in line for hours on Dollar Sunday, just to spend a few seconds in the Rebbe’s presence.

One of the small dramas that occurred on one of those Sundays has been retold a number of times. An ultra-Orthodox, non-Chassidic woman also found herself standing in line to see the Rebbe. Not that she had anything pressing or urgent. But she lived in the neighborhood, and her friend had asked her to accompany her.

After her long wait, she was finally facing the Rebbe. The Rebbe gave her a dollar, and she moved on to allow the next person in line to stand before the Rebbe. But then something unusual happened. The Rebbe told his secretary to call her back – a rare occurrence, indeed. She returned to face the Rebbe, apprehensive. The Rebbe said to her, “You shouldn’t fulfill the mitzvot [commandments] of the Torah because that is what is written in Jewish Law, but rather because you are a Jew and you want to do the will of God – and that is what God wants.”

The woman was astounded – and even a bit insulted. What does the Rebbe want from me? I am an ultra-Orthodox woman, I keep the mitzvot. As she left the line, she felt deeply embarrassed by the Rebbe’s words. The Chassidim surrounded her, wanting to hear what it was that had prompted the Rebbe to call her back into line. But she was too embarrassed to tell them. She did not understand what the Rebbe wanted from her or what he was getting at. All she felt was embarrassment.

Years later, she finally revealed what the Rebbe had said to her. And she explained: “The Rebbe’s words changed my life. Until that point, I had always felt that the fact that I am an ultra-Orthodox Jew meant that I was missing out on many pleasures that the world had to offer. There is a big world out there, and so much to do. But I can’t do those things because I am ultra-Orthodox.  When the Rebbe said those words to me, I didn’t understand and felt embarrassed. But miraculously, I stopped feeling like I was missing out. And I have never had that thought since.”


How did the Rebbe’s words stop those feelings of being on the “restricted” side of the equation? The turning point in the story was the woman’s feeling of embarrassment. Regarding the giving of the Torah, our Sages explain that in the verse “So that His fear may be upon your face,”[1] the fear is actually referring to embarrassment. “What does ‘His fear upon your face’ refer to? This is embarrassment.”[2] Like the woman in the story, generally, when we relate to our fear of Heaven, it helps us accept the yoke of the mitzvot. This, indeed, is a lower form of “fear” (yir’ah). But what the sages’ explanation teaches us is that there is a higher form of yir’ah.

In his siddur, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, brings an example to help us understand what this higher form of fear, or yir’ah, is. He likens it to the experience a person has when he stands before a truly wise Torah personality. He is flooded with fear and embarrassment. When a chassid stands before his Rebbe and feels that his eyes are looking right through him, it awakens embarrassment. The Tikunei Zohar, one of the earliest Kabbalistic works which is based on deep interpretations of anagrams of the Torah’s first word (בְּרֵאשִׁית), finds an allusion to this fusion of fear and embarrassment in the permutation that means “fear of embarrassment” (יָרֵא בּשֶׁת). It is the higher form of fear of Heaven, which can appear to be written upon a person’s face. This is the embarrassment that our sages were referring to above.

In Hebrew, the word for “face” (פָּנִים) can also be read as “interior” (פְּנִים). Thus, the fear that is upon the face also refers to the fear that emanates from inside a person’s heart. The higher fear of Heaven, for which we strive, is not only written all over our faces, but also permeates our entire being from the inside out.

The fact that “fear of embarrassment” (יָרֵא בּשֶׁת) is an anagram of the Torah’s first word (בְּרֵאשִׁית) suggests that God begins the Torah with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beit (ב), which is also the first letter of “embarrassment” (בּוּשָׁה). The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that beit is the garment of the first letter of the alphabet, alef. So, if beit represents embarrassment, what does the alef represent? Faith (אֱמוּנָה), which begins with the letter alef. The embarrassment is the garment of the faith. Higher fear of Heaven is motivated by the point of faith within.

Faith is what frees us from looking at other “pastures” and believing that they are “greener” than our own. It is what keeps us from being sorry that we are not in a posh location abroad. In our story, the Rebbe’s words that caused the woman embarrassment actually connected her to her faith and helped her to overcome her thoughts of foreign pleasures.

What causes us to look for pleasure in foreign places? Why do so many Jewish souls go astray? If we keep ourselves isolated from the world, will this prevent our youth from going astray? On a superficial level, yes. But on a deeper level, it is our faith that needs to be strengthened. How do we strengthen our faith? By believing that we are standing before God 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Just as the penetrating eyes of a Torah scholar make us feel uncomfortable, so when we are aware that we are standing before God, we are overwhelmed with embarrassment. On a deeper level, faith also means ‘covenant’. I can only be embarrassed in the face of someone to whom I feel connected, to someone with whom I share a covenant. This embarrassment is completely positive. It is a faith-strengthener, the inner motivation that keeps us connected and focused on serving G-d because we wish to do His will – instead of dreaming up visions of imaginary pleasures abroad.


לעילוי נשמת ר' אלימלך בן משה ואלטעה נעכה בת חיים נוטה

[1]. Exodus 20: 16.

[2] . Nedarim 20a.

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