The Rambam writes in the Laws of Tishuvah (return) about this season before the holidays that, “All people should see themselves as half guilty and half meritorious, if they do one sin now they tip themselves and the entire world with them to the side of guilt and cause destruction, if they do one mitzvah they will tip themselves and the whole world with them to the side of merit and will cause for themselves and the world return and saving…Because of this the Jewish people are accustomed during this time of year to give much charity, and increase their kind deeds and mitzvoth. (3:4)” I have always felt that this expressed a beautiful tension within Judaism. On one side this notion puts a great deal of pressure on each individual, on the other hand each individual is infinitely significant.
In contrast around this time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we may be inclined to see ourselves as sinful and lowly, as nothing. As we say on Yom Kippur in the viduy (confession), “Dirt am I while alive, certainly in death…” My favorite High Holiday piut (liturgical poem), which is said on Yom Kippur at the musaf service speaks I think to this dilemma and conflict.
“Vi’avitah Tihilah” -“You Desire Praise”
“Your awe is upon the angels, who are mighty and exalted, who dwell in beautiful heights.
And You desire praise from those stained with sin, passing shadows who dwell below — and that is Your praise.”
The human is both, a combination of Godly spirit and dirt (Genesis 2:7); the highest and the lowest. In infinite irony, what God-the-Highest truly desires is the praise of the lowest — humans; and not from our Divine image identity but from our sinful, fleeting, creaturely selves. Precisely on Yom Kippur, the day on which we are most prone to feeling like sullied failures, do we have the most potential, precisely from our lowness, to meaningfully praise the Highest.