Mistakes: An Introduction to the Vidui
“Perhaps the history of the errors of mankind, all things considered, is more valuable and interesting than that of their discoveries. Truth is uniform and narrow; it constantly exists, and does not seem to require so much an active energy, as a passive aptitude of soul in order to encounter it. But error is endlessly diversified, it has no reality, but it is the pure and simple creation of the mind that invents it. In this field, the soul has room enough to expand herself, to display all her boundless faculties, and all her beautiful and interesting extravangancies and absurdities.” (Report of Dr Benjamin Franklin, and Other Commissioners, Charged by the King of France, with the Examination of the Animal Magnetism, as Now Practiced in Paris )
“And this stumbling block is under your hand (Isaiah 3:6).” This verse discusses the time preceding the destruction of the First Temple, when the people of Jerusalem had become lax in the study of Torah, and experts capable of issuing halachic rulings were scarce. Whenever people would encounter someone who seemed well-versed in Torah, they would implore him to assume the position as their halachic authority. They would say, “Come, become our leader, for this stumbling block, the Torah, is under your hand,” meaning you are well versed in the Torah’s laws.
Rabbah bar Rav Huna wanted to retract one of his halachic rulings. “He assigned an announcer before him to broadcast his retraction, and he expounded: ‘And this stumbling block is under your hand.’ Why is the Torah referred to as a stumbling block? Because a person does not arrive at a full understanding of the words of Torah unless he has first stumbled in interpreting them (Gittin 43a).” Rashi explains that if a sage stumbles and rules incorrectly, and is rebuked by his colleagues, he will concentrate until he fully understands the matter.
I would like to take the approach this year to the Vidui, the confession of Ashamnu, Bagadnu, of acknowledging mistakes and articulating what we can learn from our mistakes. I believe that the physical action of pounding our chests during the Vidui contains both elements: we bring our fist to our chest as we acknowledge our sin, but then pull our fist away from us toward the future to indicate grow that we will because of, and through our mistakes.
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