At our core is a seemingly contradictory duality, a duality that poses challenges and creates tensions in nearly every waking moment. We possess a physical nature, which we share with every other being that walks the earth, and we possess a spiritual nature, unique among creatures and one imbued with the dignity and divinity of his Creator. We forever teeter between these dual facets of our nature, seeking to impart spiritual meaning to the physical, to give honor and grace to our place in creation.
The inherent tension of our duality reaches its apogee during our confession on Yom Kippur. The process of repentance and its accompanying recitation of the confession – Viddui – is, on the one hand, a singular manifestation of spiritual courage and psychological strength and, on the other, a statement of self-defeat; a clear-eyed recognition of human frailty, and unworthiness.
Sincere and authentic repentance depends upon the strength, ability and insight to accuse oneself not only of doing wrong but of the inevitability of such wrongdoing. Viddui acknowledges that one’s intentions and deeds are unworthy and tarnished, a keening cry that, “I have sinned.”
The irony – and the beauty – of the admission of necessary failure is impossible absent our unique spiritual greatness. Without such inherent holiness, self-accusation would be impossible – and meaningless. The Viddui experience requires the full tension of man’s duality. Praise and shame are equals in the Viddui experience.
Our regret demands recognition. Yet, recognition is pointless unless we simultaneously have faith in our sacredness; in our ability to repent, to change and to be renewed.
Rav Soloveitchik Z’L derived these two contradictory and inseparable elements of the repentance experience from the Viddui recitation of the Jew who apportions his Ma’ssrot during the fourth and seventh years of the Shemita cycle. Such a Jew boasts that he has not violated not even one iota of the commandments; he has fulfilled the mitzvah of Ma’ssrot 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 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 to ascribe “confession,” a word which conjures up images of weakness and helplessness, to a man elevated to the point of not having “transgressed any of Your commandments?” the Rav asked. 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 submit and admit that 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 derive 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 our Yom Kippur confession. The greatness of being leads to our Ma’ssrot confession. Both are rooted in our humanness, in the earth’s dust we are made of and the image of God we are formed in. Both of our confessions can, at times, be integrated. There are moments when the greatness of being can indeed overshadow the nullity of being.
On Kol Nidre night 1945, when the Klausenberger Rebbe Z’L addressed survivors from Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia in the Feldafin DP Camp, such a level of grace was achieved. Such grace was realized despite any “rational” awareness of the circumstances and historical context, an awareness that could easily lead one to focus on the nullity of existence. Yet, at least one person present 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 depravation? How could he speak of such things before the lost souls 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 sin 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.” And so, it went until the Klausenberger ended the Ashamnu prayer and turned his attention to the more detailed Al Chait. Once again, he concluded with the pride of one whose greatness of being rises above the nullity of being; that the recitation of sins enumerated in Al Chait hardly applied to the worshippers in Feldafig Block 5A.
Al Chait she’chatanu lifanecha b’ones uvreratzon – for the sins that we have sinned before You under duress and willingly – “We certainly did not observe the mitzvot in the camps because we were forced to.”
B’Yetzer hara – for the sin that we have sinned with the evil urge – “To sin with the yetzer hara you must first have possessions of your physical sense of touch. We were skin and bones, incapable of touching. We could feel only the corpses we carried out every morning. We could hear only the commands of our guards. Smell? Yes, we had a sense of smell. The stench of death was constantly in our nostrils. Taste? Only the gray of the watery soup they gave us, so we could have enough strength for another day’s work. On these, I forget, we did have the yetzer hara for food, for the slop that we saw thrown to the pigs. What the SS officers would not eat they threw to the pigs.
“How we envied the pigs.”
And so, the Rebbe Z’L eliminated the Al Chaits one by one, concluding by closing the covers of the Machzor.
Seeing the Rebbe close the Machzor, the witness was certain the Rebbe was finished. But then the Rebbe returned to his original question, “Who wrote this Machzor? I don’t see anywhere the sins that apply to us, the sins of losing emunah and bitachon (faith and trust in G-d)!
“Where is the proof that we have sinned in this fashion? How many times did we recite Krias Shema on our wood slats at night and think to ourselves: Ribbono shel Olam, please take my neshama, so that I do not have to wake to this horror. ‘I’m thankful before You who has returned my soul to me.’ I do not need my soul. You can keep it. How many of us went to sleep thinking that we couldn’t exist another day, with all bitachon lost? And yet when the dawn broke in the morning, we once again said Modeh Ani and thanked Hashem for having returned our souls.”
“None of us expected to survive. Every morning, we saw this one didn’t move and that one didn’t move, and as we carried the dead out we looked upon them with envy. Is that emunah in Hashem? Is that bitachon in Hashem?
“So, yes, we have sinned. We have sinned and now we must klop al Chait. We must pray to get back the emunah and bitachon that lay dormant these years in the camps. Now that we are free, Ribbono shel Olam, we beg You to forgive us. Forgive everyone here. Forgive every Jew in the world.”
Rav Soloveitchik Z’L taught that every confession expresses itself in the outcry: “I am black, and I am beautiful, Oh daughter of Jerusalem” (Shir HaShirim 1:5). When we fail to see the “beauty,” we cannot hope to discern the “blackness.”
Genuine repentance demands that the sinner view himself from the seemingly two contradictory viewpoints, which are the two fundamental truths of his being, the physical and the spiritual, the nullity of being and the greatness of being.
The Klausenberger Rebbe Z’L clearly saw both.
May Hashem grant us the strength, courage, humility and wisdom to see both as well.