Dark Matters of the Soul (a Tisha B’Av Excerpt)
Sarah Yehudit Schneider

Scientists assert that Dark Matter and Dark Energy permeate our universe though neither have been observed directly. Their presence is inferred by their impact on visible matter.  The motion of galaxies and structure of our cosmos are best explained by positing that our entire visible world is embedded in a vast matrix of invisible (ie, dark) “stuff” that comprises (no less than) 95% of the total mass/energy of the universe.[i] This is astrophysics, not science fiction.

As above so below.  Dark matter is invisible (at least for now) yet it exerts a tremendous (and detectable) influence on the behavior of galaxies and the distribution of visible matter in our universe. It is humbling to consider that 95% of the stuff of our world lies outside the range of our senses.  It is affecting us (and in some ways, even controlling us) yet we cannot see it.

The same can be said about shame, which is rightly called the Dark Matter of the Soul. Shame is the first emotion mentioned in the Torah (1312 BCE), the Talmud (350 – 500 CE) extols its dark influence,[ii] and Maharal (1512 – 1609) calls it the most powerful motivating force in the psyche.[iii] Ambition, says Freud (1856 – 1939), arises from our motive to avoid shame, to suppress all evidence of its presence, to divert attention away from our flaws and onto our achievements instead.[iv] The ego disintegrates in the face of shame and retaliates by banning it from awareness. Shame gets pushed to the outskirts of the psyche and there it lurks.  The ego keeps an eye on its mortal enemy and steers our life along a course that it believes will minimize shame and even, hopefully, avoid it. The ego employs elaborate defenses to keep it suppressed, including a host of decoys that divert our attention from shame’s presence and impact on our life-choices, love-choices, conflicts, etc.

In this way, behind the scenes, shame exerts a profound influence on our lives.  It is the dark matrix of our psyche that pulls us here and pushes us there, that blinds us to this and addicts us to that, without us ever knowing that we’ve been scammed. Behind our seemingly innocent decisions is a determined (though unconscious) motive to deny (or repress) shame. It is staggering to contemplate the impact that shame surreptitiously exerts upon the shape of our lives…

…The spies that Moshe sent to reconnoiter the land exactly illustrate this point [Num. 13-14].  They were the most illustrious of their tribes. How did they manage to arrive at such a false and negative report and even, apparently, come to believe their own lie.

The Zohar presents a shocking explanation.[v] The spies understood that crossing into the holy land would initiate a new era—the socio-political-power-structure would dissolve and reconstitute into a completely different form. Now, they were princes but across the border, in the new world, they’d become obsolete for leadership there requires a wholly different set of skills and talents.

They did not wantonly scheme to sabotage God’s plan by inventing a lie and conspiring to promote it.  It was more subtle than that. Their anticipated loss of status and the anxiety it provoked threatened their self-image as humble, selfless servants of the Holy One. Their hypocrisy (in this regard) was too shameful to admit and so they pushed it out of sight…but it was there.

A conflict ensued between their conscious drive to promote God’s will and their unconscious drive to preserve their social status (so says the Zohar). Their integrity collapsed under the strain. In the organic unfolding of events they assembled a narrative that was both plausible and self-serving. It cast them as heroes instead of has-beens.  By the time they returned to camp they believed every word of it, which is why it worked. Yet this seems farfetched.  How could they not know that they were lying…

…The insidious power of disowned shame to warp perceptions to such a degree that what we see is not at all what is there, is exemplified by its inverse, the familiar phenomenon of romantic love. It also is shockingly effective at distorting assessments and blinding perceptions.

It is the oldest story in the book. One is bedazzled by the charm of one’s new “love.” Everything about them is endearing.  And then, as time passes, the affection fades or perhaps even reverses as “real life” sobers one’s perceptions. It’s always a shock. “How did I not see what was right there before my eyes.”

Unconscious shame warps our perceptions as predictably as does romantic love.  By the time these hand-picked scouts, reached camp, they genuinely believed that they were heroes, speaking truth to power, protecting their constituency from certain demise. That is the cunning of unprocessed shame…

…It is also the mechanism that produces baseless hatred, the culprit behind our current, extended exile. More on that to come…

HaShem, please help us to find our “center,” both individually and collectively—the place that can hold all the disparate parts of ourselves in grace and joy and peace and love—the place that can hold Your mashiach and draw his/her/their revelation into the world now.  May our mourning turn to celebration as we step into the era of growth-through-joy that is Your promise and our destiny.


[i] Dark Matter: A hypothetical type of matter. The name refers to the fact that it does not emit or interact with electromagnetic radiation, such as light, and is thus invisible to the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Although dark matter has not been directly observed, its existence and properties are inferred from its gravitational effects such as the motions of visible matter, gravitational lensing, its influence on the universe’s large-scale structure, and its effects in the cosmic microwave background. Dark energy plus dark matter constitutes 95.1% of the total mass–energy content of the cosmos.

[ii] TB Gittin 57a. בא וראה כמה גדולה כחה של בושה, שהרי סייע הקב״ה את בר קמצא, והחריב את ביתו ושרף את היכלו 

[iii] מהרל: ספר נתיבות עולם ב—נתיב אהבת ריע—פרק א :… כי אין דבר שהוא גורם לפעול בעולם כמו הבושה, כי עם גודל מעלת בהמ”ק שהוא בית קדוש אלהי על הכל גרמה חטא של הבושה שהבושה הוא בטול צלם האלקי, עד שהחטא בזה גרם לבטל בהמ”ק האלקי

[iv]  Leland Hinsie, M.d. and Robert Jean Campbell, M.D., (1960). Shame. Psychiatric Dictionary. Oxford University Press, Inc.

[v] Zohar 3:158a/b.  “All of them were tsadikim and heads of Israel.  But they advised themselves badly.  Why? They said to themselves: “If Israel enters into the Land, we will be demoted from being “heads.” Moshe will appoint new leaders.  We only merit to our leadership positions in the desert. But in the [new] Land we will not merit to leadership.’  And because they took corrupt advise upon themselves, they died and all those who listened to them died as well.”

וַיִּשְׁלַח אֹתָם מֹשֶׁה וְגוֹ’, כֻּלָּם אֲנָשִׁים. כֻּלָּם צַדִּיקִים הָיוּ וְרָאשֵׁי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיוּ, אֲבָל הֵם לָקְחוּ לְעַצְמָם עֵצָה רָעָה. מַדּוּעַ נָטְלוּ עֵצָה זוֹ? אֶלָּא אָמְרוּ, אִם יִכָּנְסוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל לָאָרֶץ – יַעֲבִירוּ אוֹתָנוּ מִלִּהְיוֹת רָאשִׁים, וִימַנֶּה מֹשֶׁה רָאשִׁים אֲחֵרִים, שֶׁהֲרֵי אָנוּ זָכִינוּ בַמִּדְבָּר לִהְיוֹת רָאשִׁים, אֲבָל בָּאָרֶץ לֹא נִזְכֶּה. וְעַל שֶׁלָּקְחוּ עֵצָה רָעָה לְעַצְמָם, מֵתוּ הֵם וְכָל אוֹתָם שֶׁלָּקְחוּ דִבְרֵיהֶם.




Recommended Posts