on Embarrassment, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings, p. 54-56.

Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might; but let him who glories glory in this: that he has a sense of ultimate embarrassment. How embarrassing for man to be the greatest miracle on earth and not 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. It is the awareness that the world is too great for him, the awareness of the grandeur and mystery of being, the awareness of being present at the unfolding of an inconceivable eternal saga.

Embarrassment is the awareness of an incongruity of character and challenge, of perceptivity and reality, of knowledge and understanding, of mystery and comprehension. Experiencing the evanescence of time, one realizes the absurdity of man’s sense of sovereignty. In the face of the immense misery of the human species, one realizes the insufficiency of all human effort to relieve it. In the face of one’s inner anguish, one realizes that fallacy of absolute expediency.

Embarrassment is a response to the discovery that in living we either replenish or frustrate a wondrous expectation. It involves an awareness of the grandeur of existence that may be wasted, of a waiting ignored, of unique moments missed. It is a protection against the outburst of the inner evils, against arrogance, hybris, self-deification. The end of embarrassment would be the end of humanity.

There is hardly a person who does not submit his soul to the beauty parlor, who does not employ the make-up of vanity in order to belie his embarrassment. It is only before God that we all stand naked.

Great is the challenge we face at every moment, sublime the occasion, every occasion. Here we are, contemporaries of God, some of His power at our disposal.

The honest man is humbled by the awareness that his highest qualities are but semiprecious; all ground for firmness is mud. Except for his will to cling to life, what is his abiding concern?

Embarrassment not only precedes religious commitment; it is the touchstone of religious existence. How embarrassing for man to have been created in the likeness of God and to be unable to recognize him! In the words of Job:

“Lo, He passes by me and I see Him not;
He moves on, but I do not perceive Him.” (Job 9:11)

The sense of embarrassment may be contrasted with the self-assurance of a nonreligious type: “I do not need a God to tell me how to live. I am a good person without going to the synagogue or church.” A religious man could never say: “I am a good person.” Far from being satisfied with his conduct, he prays three times daily: “Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned.”

I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit, never embarrassed at the profanation of life. A world full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival. There are slums, disease, and salvation all over the world, and we are building more luxurious hotels in Las Vegas. Social dynamics is no substitute for responsibility.

I shudder at the thought of a society ruled by people who are absolutely certain of their wisdom, by people to whom the everything in the world is crystal-clear, whose minds know no mystery, no uncertainty.

What the world needs is a sense of embarrassment. Modern man has the power and the wealth to overcome poverty and disease, but he has no wisdom to overcome suspicion. We are guilty of misunderstanding the meaning of existence; we are guilty of distorting our goals and misrepresenting our souls. We are better than our assertions, more intricate, more profound than our theories maintain. Our thinking is behind the times.

What is the truth of being human? The lack of pretension, the acknowledgment of opaqueness, shortsightedness, inadequacy. But truth also demands rising, striving, for the goal is both within and beyond us. The truth of being human is gratitude; its secret is apprecation.