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Nullity Of Being, Greatness Of Being: A Meditation on Sin and Repentance


At the core of man is duality. Some might suggest contradiction. Regardless of how it is characterized, man’s essential duality creates tension in his life. For man is both corporal, like every other being that walks the face of the earth, and he is spiritual, imbued with the dignity and divinity of his Creator.

At every instance of his life, man teeters and totters, seeking balance between the dual facets of his nature. At each step, he seeks to imbue to natural with the spiritual, lending grace to the most basic of tasks, and to lend humanity to the divine, bringing holiness within his grasp.

No moment is more rife with the tension of man’s duality than his confession on Yom Kippur. The process of repentance and its accompanying recitation of the confession – Vidui – highlights the contradiction of man’s 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 pathetic recognition of human frailty, inferiority and unworthiness.

Sincere and authentic repentance depends upon 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 one’s intentions and deeds are unworthy and tarnished, a shameful cry that “I have sinned.”

Repentance is a merciless and boundless expression of self-accusation. However, the irony – and some might suggest, the beauty – of this admission of necessary failure is wholly dependent on man’s unique superiority and spiritual greatness. Without such inherent holiness, self-accusation would be impossible.

It is only when one is cognizant of freedom that he can recognize guilt, fragility and temptation and then – and only then – contemplate genuine repentance.

The Vidui experience is meaningless without both aspects of man’s duality. His praise and shame are equal parts of the Vidui experience. Regret requires recognition. Yet recognition is futile unless man simultaneously has faith in his own sacrality; in his creative abilities and talents, which ultimately allow him to repent, to change and to be renewed and reinvigorated.

Call it a fundamental irony, contradiction or duality, but the praise of man is one and the same as the enabler of his confession. One without the other has no 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 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 the 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” is also to 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 is also expected to acknowledge 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 – the nullity of being and the greatness of being.

The nullity of being leads to the Yom Kippur confession. The greatness of being leads to the ma’asrot confession. Both are rooted in humans, created from earth’s dust in the image of God.

Both forms of confession can at times be integrated. The greatness of being can indeed overshadow the nullity of being.

When the Klausenberg Rebbe addressed survivors from Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia in the Feldafin 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.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.


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