Thursday, 27 March 2008

Embarrassment is all around.

First Tibetan monks embarrass the Chinese, right in the run-up to the Olympics. Then the Chinese respond harshly – a mere three days after the Americans remove China from a human-rights blacklist – an embarrassment for the Americans. The Chinese invite a select group of foreign journalists to see Lhasa for themselves and a small group of monks embarrass their political masters by chanting of their lack of freedom in front of the scribes.

And then there is been that embarrassment of the Independent Asylum Commission, making public the ‘shameful blemish on the United Kingdom’s proud history of fair treatment for those [including my own ancestors] who come here in search of sanctuary.’

The Rabbis teach (Talmud BM 58b) that embarrassment – malbish panim (lit. whitening of the face) is like shedding blood. A huge realm of mussar – Jewish ethical writing focuses on the terrible hurt inflicted by the embarrassment we cause.

Of course, embarrassment also prompts us to action, indeed it may be the best prompt we have to make our human lives worthy of the gift of our soul. Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests the following.

How embarrassing for man to be the greatest miracle on earth and not to understand it! How embarrassing for man to live in the shadow of greatness and to ignore it, to be a contemporary of God and not to sense it. Religion depends upon what man does with his ultimate embarrassment, embarrassment not only precedes religious commitment, it is the touchstone of religious existence … What the world needs is a sense of embarrassment. Modern man has the power and the wealth to overcome poverty and disease, but we are guilty of misunderstanding the meaning of existence.

Embarrassment – when it focuses our minds on the sufferings of others – is no bad thing. Indeed it might be the only thing that can save this fragile world. We need more of it.

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