A fisherman living near the banks of a river was making his way home one evening, exhausted from his long labors. As he trudged along the path, he dreamed of what his life might be like if he were suddenly rich. Just then, his foot brushed against a leather pouch. He picked it up only to discover it filled with small stones. Falling back into his reverie, he absent-mindedly began throwing the pebbles into the water.
“When I am rich,” he told himself, “I will live in a large house. I will have one servant to serve me food and another to serve me wine…”
He dreamed of a carriage lined with gold. Of fine clothes. Of herds of goats and sheep. On and on, a glorious image per stone until there was only a single stone remaining.
As the fisherman held the final stone in his hand, the last of the sun’s rays caught it and burst into a brilliant rainbow. His eyes widened as he realized that he held in his hand a valuable gem – and that he had been tossing away real wealth while dreaming of illusory riches that would never be his.
He fell to his knees in astonishment and despair.
A philosopher observing the fisherman would have recognized in his behavior and subsequent agony nothing more than an example of the human condition.
Each of us is made up of the real and the illusory, of the obtainable and the fanciful. More fundamentally, at our core there exists duality. Perhaps even contradiction. Whether we are at war with ourselves or maintain an uneasy compromise, our essential duality is a constant source of anxiety and disease in our lives.
How can it be otherwise? The duality is woven into the very nature of our being. We are corporal, like every other creature that walks the face of the earth, and spiritual, uniquely imbued with the dignity and divinity of our Creator. At each step of our lives we teeter and totter, seeking balance between these dual, often competing, facets of our nature.
At our best, we seek to imbue the natural with the spiritual, lending grace to the most basic of tasks, and to lend humanity to the divine, bringing holiness to our everyday lives. At our worst, we give in wholly to our most base instincts, seemingly powerless to find any balance with our better natures.
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No moment in our lives is more rife with the tension of our duality than our confession on Yom Kippur. The process of repentance and its accompanying recitation of the confession – Vidui – shines a bright light on this essential contradiction of our nature.
On the one hand, Vidui is a singular manifestation of courage, creativity and spiritual and psychological strength. On the other, it is a powerful statement of self-defeat, a clear-eyed recognition of the pathetic nature of human frailty, inferiority and unworthiness.
The ability to repent, then, is not only at the core of our nature, it is the singular endeavor by which we can yoke the two aspects of our nature in an enduring balance.
Sincere and authentic repentance cannot exist but for the strength, ability and insight to accuse oneself not only of doing wrong but of possessing a nature that makes such failure inevitable. Vidui is an acknowledgement that our intentions and deeds are unworthy and tarnished, a shameful cry to Heaven that “I have sinned.”
Repentance is a merciless and boundless expression of self-accusation. However, the irony – and beauty – of this admission of necessary failure is wholly dependent on man’s unique spiritual capacity.
Without our inherent holiness, self-accusation would not only be impossible, it would be a futile and frustrating expression. It is only when we are cognizant of freedom that we can recognize guilt, fragility and temptation and then – only then – contemplate genuine repentance.
Even if it were possible, the Vidui experience would be meaningless without both aspects of our duality. Praise and shame in equal parts. Regret and recognition. All useless. All futile. Unless – unless we simultaneously have faith in our sacredness, in our creativity and goodness – the aspects of our being that allow us to repent, to be renewed and reinvigorated.