Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Walk Article


Yom Kippur-5777

Rabbi David Walk

For those of us of a certain age, that title describes how many of the old Perry Mason (1957-1966) crime shows ended. The real perpetrator would break down under the withering examination by the foxy defense attorney, who figured out the real criminal way before the rest of us did, and dumfounded the not as bright district attorney, Hamilton Burger (played by Willian Tallman, who famously recorded an anti-smoking ad, which was not aired until after his death from lung cancer). Oh, if only crime fighting were that easy. Those were confessions that we could understand, and even admire. Confronted with undeniable evidence, the offender would concede guilt. Do we feel the same way about the long lists of admission of guilt that we endure on Yom Kippur? I don't think so. We look at this inventory of dastardly deeds, and tend to deny any culpability on our part. So, the annual question returns: Why must I recite this litany of crimes year in and year out?

First of all, I must confess that I have trouble with this confession stuff each year. When I was younger, and even more immature than I am now (if you can believe that), I used to read the list of sins and try to decide which people in the congregation committed which of these crimes. So, there I was sinning simultaneously to confessing. That seems oddly efficient. However, as time went on, I starting thinking that the Sages produced this list to help us remember which terrible things we really did last year. I think they believed that this list was helpful, because it contained the most often transgressed mitzvoth. I think that it would be instructive to sit down before Yom Kippur and write our own list of more modern sins. I face-booked embarrassing things on purpose. I knowingly left my phone on ring during that speech. I knew that it was a handicap space. I gave out people's passwords. You get the idea.

Maimonides actually lists confessing as the essential mitzvah of teshuva (repentance). This is how he expressed this idea in Sefer HaMitzvot: The 73rd mitzvah is that we are commanded to verbally acknowledge the sins we have committed before God, when we come to do teshuvah

(repent). This is vidui (verbal confession), the idea of which is to…elaborate verbally and ask for atonement on this transgression with all the eloquence at his command. He further explains in Mishneh Torah: How does one confess: He states: 'I implore You, God, I sinned, I transgressed, I committed iniquity before You by doing the following. Behold, I regret and am embarrassed for my deeds. I promise never to repeat this act again.' These are the essential elements of the confessional prayer. Whoever confesses profusely and elaborates on these matters is worthy of praise (Hilchot Teshuva 1:1). So, it seems that confession is an integral part of teshuva. Why? Teshuva requires an entire personality makeover; confession, on the other hand, appears to be such a superficial act.

The Rav (Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik, 1903-1993) was also concerned with this issue. He was convinced that Maimonides believed that teshuva was a critically important precept but that the prescribed action associated with this mitzvah was the vidui. He further explained: At this point the idea of teshuva emerges and conveys to man the message of catharsis. In what does this catharsis express itself? In the aptitude of man to take a critical look at himself and to admit failure, in the courage to confess, to plead guilty, in the readiness to accept defeat… To recite vidui is the greatest of all virtues, the most heroic act; it is catharsis par excellence (Catharsis, p. 54). To the Rav the recitation of vidui was the highest intellectual and spiritual act, because the sinner had completely understood the act and its deleterious effect. The exact verbalization of what went wrong demonstrates my understanding of what I did, and, then, a willingness to banish that behavior forever. Vidui works within my brain and psyche. What if vidui is working in a realm other than the intellect?

Reb Menachen Mendel of Vitebsk (1730-1788) was also concerned with this issue, and he wrote: The essential vitality of anything is the letters comprising it. Thus, if a person sins he relegates the letters that are the vitality (of that action) to (the realm of) evil, and thereby empowers evil. Therefore one who utters oral confession by saying 'I have sinned' with bitterness of heart out of his awe of God, along with his love of God, is actually bringing the vitalizing letters out of (the realm of) evil, such that evil is left without vitality, and ceases to exist." (Peri ha-Aretz, Beha'alotekha). According to this early Chasidic Master, sins exist because of the letters in the words which describe that act. Those acts and letters are real because we humans have been endowed with this power at the time of Creation. When God breathed life into Adam (Genesis 2:7); humanity was given the power of speech, which makes words and letters real entities when we verbalize them. This isn't magic. We have all felt the awesome power of words when we have been praised or (God forbid) denigrated.

The Rebbe is taking this powerful reality and claiming that we have the power to expunge these negative vibes, by confessing. Fire fights fire; words fight words.

Saying that I was wrong, that I know exactly what I did, and that I commit to never, ever doing it again, is a very powerful weapon. It can eliminate evil. But from where is this evil eliminated? The Rav says from me; Reb Menachem Mendel says from the universe. I don't know who's right, but both ideas are very attractive to me. They both express the very potent power that vidui can wield, if used sincerely. So, this year, let's not read those lists cynically. Let's use those moments to feel the scrutiny of our conscience, and feel the catharsis of declaring, 'It was me! I did it!' And then never do it, again.

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