Yom Kippur

The Nullity of Being and the Greatness of Being

February 13, 2014

Is the process of repentance and its accompanying recitation of the confession-Viddui, a manifestation of courage, creativity and spiritual and psychological strength, or is it merely a statement of self-defeat, a pathetic recognition of human frailty, inferiority and unworthiness?

Sincere and authentic repentance is predicated upon the strength and ability to accuse oneself. It is an admission that one’s intentions and deeds are unworthy and tarnished, a shameful calling out that “We have sinned.”

Repentance must encompass a merciless and boundless expression of self-accusation. However, this admission of inferiority and weakness emanates from man’s unique superiority and spiritual greatness without which the self-accusation would never be possible. When cognizant of one’s freedom, man can admit guilt, fragility and temptation and then contemplate change, improvement and repentance. Man’s praise and shame are both equal parts to the confession-Viddui experience. Without recognition of sin and failure there can be no regret. But this recognition remains self defeating and futile unless man simultaneously has faith in his own creative abilities and talents, which will ultimately allow him to reemerge changed, renewed and reinvigorated. The praise of man is the enabler of the confession of man.

Rav Soloveitchik Z’L 1 derived these two 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 Shmitta cycle. This Jew boasts that he has not violated even an iota of the commandments and that 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 L-rd my G-d, I have done according to all that You have commanded me.” Such statement in praise of a man extolling his virtues as a G-d 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 Z’L 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 inner will and strength to do right is also expected to own up to that which is not right. The ability to recognize success is a prerequisite to admission of failure. Both emanate from the same source and both lead to parallel 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’ssrot confession. Both are rooted in proud, yet humble humans who were created from earth’s dust in the image of G-d. Both forms of confession however, can at times be integrated. The greatness of being can indeed overshadow the nullity of being.

When the Klausenberg Rebbe Z’L addressed survivors from Hungary, Rumania, and Czechoslovakia in the Feldafin DP Camp on Kol Nidre night in 1945, greatness of being overshadowed nullity of being, even as it may have seemed logical to focus exclusively on the nullity of it all. Lieutenant Birnbaum 2 reports 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 Nazi murderers say to those who could see and smell the smoke emanating from the chimneys of the crematoriums? Could he speak of confessions to those who had witnessed and survived the destruction, slaughter and annihilation of millions of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives and children? He did.

The Rebbe stood with his Machzor in hand 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 (we have become guilty). “Have we sinned against Hashem or man? I don’t think so.” Dibarnu dofi (We have spoken slander). “We didn’t speak any 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.” Latznu (we have scoffed). “But we were so serious in the camps. There was no such thing as smiling or making a joke.” Moradnu (We have rebelled). “Who should we have rebelled against? Against Hashem? We weren’t able to rebel at all. If we had tried to rebel against the Nazis it would have been our last rebellion.”

The Klausenberger finished with the Ashamnu prayer and then turned his attention to the more detailed confession of Al Chait. Again he concluded with the pride of one whose greatness of being supersedes the nullity of being, that hardly anything was applicable to these 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.” Bevili daas (without knowledge). “Our minds were in such a state that we did not have knowledge of anything.” B’tipushus peh (with foolish speech). That’s a gelechter (funny). Who spoke foolishly or lightheartedly in the situation we were in?”

B’Yetzher hara (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. The only thing we could feel were the corpses we carried out every morning. We heard only one thing, the commands of our guards. We had ears for nothing else. Our eyes were only looking around to see whether our guards were watching when we wanted to take a rest. Otherwise we were as blind men seeing nothing. Smell – yes, we had a sense of smell. The unforgettable stench of death was constantly in our nostrils making us nauseous. Taste -the only taste we knew was the thin 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, emphasizing how all of these transgressions did not apply to his congregation. He finally closed the Machzor.

Lieutenant Birnbaum was sure that the Rebbe was finished. But then he 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 repeat once again in the morning. ‘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. Yes, we tried to survive, but none of us expected to. 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?

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 was dormant these last few years in the camps. Now that we are freed, 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.” When we do not see the “beauty” we cannot discern the “blackness.” Genuine repentance demands that the sinner view himself from the seemingly two antithetical viewpoints, the nullity of being and the greatness of being. The Klausenberger Rebbe Z’L clearly saw both.

May He grant us the strength, courage, humility and wisdom to see both as well.

Shanah Tovah

1 In Shiurei Harav edited by Joseph Epstein, Ktav Publishing, 1994
2 Lieutenant Birnbaum-A soldier’s story by Meyer Birnbaum with Yonasan Rosenblum, Mesorah Publications, 1994