Confessions II: Ashamnu
We have been destructive, we have damaged ourselves spiritually, we are not even aware of the damage we have caused ourselves. Because of our sins is that we have made it difficult to change and improve ourselves.
Part of what is necessary to change is awareness and certain spiritual strength. Ashamnu means that we have caused this spiritual damage. Whenever we speak of a sin, its consequences are called Asham. So for example, when Isaac came to the land of the Philistines, he tells Avimelech that Rebecca is his sister. When Avimelech finds out he is angry with Isaac. Isaac tells Avimelech that the reason he lied is because when his parents came through here Avimelech took Sarah from Abraham. Avimelech tells Isaac that someone could have taken Rebecca, thus bringing sin, an Asham, punishment.
It interesting that Asham is used to denote both sin and punishment. This tells us that it’s not just the sin, but also it’s punishment. Remember, punishment is not
“You did such-and-such” which is then followed by a slap, a punishment is to help you fix what you’ve done. So Asham brings a certain penitence and it brings a reality that you’ve created when you sin. Asham means the I’ve brought a reality, a destructive reality into my life, destructive forces, and those forces will prevent me from growing in the direction that I need to grow and from developing in the direction that I need to develop. And that’s why Ashamnu has to be the first thing that we recite in the Viddui. The only way we’re going to be able to take, to focus on what we’ve done wrong, or what is going on with us, so that we can fix it, is if we understand that our sins have real consequences and commit ourselves to undoing the damage.
Joseph’s brothers also referred to the effects of their sin, the destructive effects of their sin with the word Asham. They were in Egypt, coming for food, they didn’t know that the viceroy, Tzefenat Paneach, was in fact their brother Joseph. He said to them, “I’m going to hold one of your brothers here hostage and the only way you can get him back is if, when your return, you bring Binyamin with you. So don’t bother coming back without Binyamin, because you won’t get food, and you definitely won’t get Shimon back.”
The brothers here this and they say to each other “Certainly we are guilty concerning our brother in that we saw the anguish of his soul when he cried out to us and we would not hear.” The word they use for having sinned is Asham. Truly we are guilty. According to the Radak, when the brothers say that they had sinned, this verse is the source of the concept that one who is suffering should search his deeds for the reason. The Gemara says that one who is suffering should examine his life and what he is doing and then you will figure out what he needs to fix and relieve himself of his suffering. So Radak is saying that not only did they sin but also this is the effect of their sin.
By the way, when we say in the Al Cheit, that we sinned Bivli Daat, or without awareness, the literal translation is that we weren’t aware. Really it means that we’re willing to go through life without thinking. One of the important things about thinking is that we try to figure out the source of our suffering. This means that in every sin there is an element of Asham. Every sin that we commit, there is an element of destruction. Therefore, when we say Ashamnu, we’re not only saying that we are guilty, but that we have destroyed a part of ourselves spiritually, which in turn has led to all the other things that we have done. It begins a process and makes it almost impossible to fix. So if I feel a barrier to change and I just can’t get myself, although theoretically or intellectually I would like to, I really cant get myself to do it, so that is all a result of Ashamnu.
There’s another unbelievable concept of Ashamnu in Sefer Ezra. There it relates how the Beit Hamikdash had already begun to being rebuilt. A large group of Jews returned from Babylon having overcome many obstacles. Still, they got themselves back to Jerusalem and they began the work on the Temple. Everything seems to be going well, but the leaders of the people come to Ezra and say the following: The people of Israel and the Cohanim, then the Leviim, have not separated themselves from the peoples of the land. They have taken non-Jewish daughters for themselves and for their sons.
Although these people have survived terrible adversity in order to return to Jerusalem and they have begun to work on rebuilding the Temple, Ezra finds out that no one is willing to fix the blatant sin of intermarriage. He says, “When I heard this thing, I rent my garment, and my mantle plucked off the hair of my head and my beard, and I sat down appalled. I fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to God, my Lord, and said, ‘O my Lord, I am ashamed and blushed to lift up my face to you. For Iniquities are increased over our head, and our guilt has mounted to the heavens. Since the days of our fathers we have been exceedingly guilty to this day.’” As you read on, its clear that he feels that no matter how much they have succeeded up to this point, the cannot continue to succeed because of their Asham.
So the effects of Asham are so devastating that they can undo accomplishments and prevent further success. Ashamnu, means that we have been spiritually destructive. It’s not just that we will have difficulty growing in the future, but it also means that we have damaged things we have done in the past. If I keep each and every Shabbat, theoretically I should be growing from every Shabbat to the next. It has a real effect. Every time I daven it has an effect on me. So why is it that we don’t experience all of our success? One of the reasons based on this, Ezra’s reading of Ashamnu, is that every time we sin, we not only make it difficult to grow further, but we are also undoing things that we have benefited from previous things that we have done.