It is irony. It is contradiction. It is an impossibility. It is the nexus of our being. It is what defines our humanity. And it causes us to wallow in our sin at the exact moment it allows us to genuinely confess and embrace holiness. To live with this duality is to be human. To have one without the other is to live a life bereft of meaning.
Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, derived these two inseparable elements of the repentance experience from the Vidui recitation of the Jew who apportions his ma’asrot during the fourth and seventh years of the Shemittah cycle. Such a Jew boasts that he has not violated even one iota of the Commandments; he has fulfilled the mitzvah of ma’asrot to the letter.
“According to all your Commandments which You have commanded me: I have not transgressed any of Your Commandments, neither have I forgotten. I have harkened to the voice of the Lord my God, I have done according to all that You have commanded me.”
Such a statement in praise of a man extolling his virtues as a God-fearing and obedient servant is categorized by our sages as a “confession”? How is it possible, Rav Soloveitchik asked, to ascribe “confession” – a word that conjures up images of weakness and helplessness – to a man elevated to the point of not having “transgressed any of Your commandments”?
But that is precisely the point. Only a person proud enough to announce that he has done “all that You have commanded” can also be expected to humbly admit he has “not done according to all that You have commanded.”
The one who possesses the insight and strength to do right likewise has the capability to know – and do – that which is not right. The ability to recognize success is a prerequisite to admission of failure. Both emanate from the same source; both lead to mutually exclusive conclusions, that is, the nullity of being and the greatness of being.
It is the nullity of being that leads directly to the Yom Kippur confession. The greatness of being leads to the ma’asrot confession. Both are rooted in our humanity, our humanness, created from earth’s dust in the image of God. There are moments, glimpses of holiness, when the two forms of confession can be integrated. The grace of human experience is that the greatness of being can, for fleeting moments of experience, for wisps of time, indeed overshadow the nullity of being.
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When the Klausenberger Rebbe addressed survivors from Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia in the Feldafing DP Camp on Kol Nidre night in 1945, the greatness of being overpowered the nullity of being, despite the dire circumstances and the historical context, which might have led a “rational” thinker to focus on the nullity of existence.
Lieutenant Meyer Birnbaum reported that he “had never heard so powerful a speech and never will again. When he finished, more than two hours later, I was both emotionally drained and inspired for the best davening of my life.”
What did this great rebbe, who himself had lost his wife and eleven children to the Nazis, say to those who could still see and smell the stench of the crematoria? How could he speak of confessions to those who had witnessed such depravity? How could he speak of such things in the presence of millions of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives and children?
The rebbe stood with his Machzor in hand, calmly flipping through its pages. Periodically he would ask rhetorically, “Wher haht das geshriben?” – Who wrote this? Does this apply to us? Are we guilty of the sins enumerated here?
One by one he went through each of the sins listed in the Ashamnu prayer and then the Al Chait and concluded that those sins had little to do with those who survived the camps. He analyzed each of the possible transgressions one by one:
Ashamnu. “Have we sinned against Hashem or man? I don’t think so.”
Dibarnu dofi. “We spoke no slander. We didn’t speak at all. If we had any strength to speak, we saved it for the SS guards so that we could avoid punishment.”