Teshuva! Teshuvah! Teshuvah!
Is there anything more trumpeted during the high holidays? (Other than the shofar of course.) With Yom Kippur imminent, our leaders implore us to perform this holy act of Jewish “repentance.” Teshuvah is both an amazing gift as well as an intimately introspective process. But the actual Torah mitzvah that must be done to get the “atonement” on Yom Kippur isn’t teshuvah, but something known as Viduy, or “confession.”
The copious lists of sins that starts, Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu… or Al chet schechatanu le’fanecha (for the sin we have committed against you…), that’s all the process of Viduy. And the reason why the list of sins is so long is that the Rabbis are literally including every sin they could think of to make sure we’ve confessed for every possible infraction. This is to ensure a clean slate on Yom Kippur. However, no matter how thorough that list is, you cannot get atonement from God for the sins you’ve committed against another person unless you ask them for forgiveness. This probably isn’t news to you.
However, the “quoted phrases” I’ve used thus far are very poor English equivalents for their Hebrew counterparts. Repentance, atonement, charity, even prayer, are all inaccurate and contain a lot of baggage associated with other religions. And confession may be the most egregious.
Who is Confession Really For?
The phrase “getting something off my chest” comes to mind. Guilt can cause anxiety, fixation, insomnia, and all sorts of other problems. A confession can do wonders to alleviate such symptoms. But if the only reason we’re confessing is for that relief, that’s a bit selfish, isn’t it? When we make such a confession, are we more worried with “getting off light?” Or are we more focused on the offended party’s wellbeing?
That’s really the question we should be asking.
Here’s another way of looking at it. Imagine someone you don’t think you’ve wronged, but you know they’ve wronged you. And you know they’re probably not going to ask for forgiveness. Is it on you to let their offenses go? Some Rabbis would say yes, while others would say it is difficult to forgive without an apology. You might think that you do so much for the other person and they do so little for you, so because of that your offenses pale in comparison to theirs. However, then the question comes, how much do you value the relationship at all?
If we value our relationships, we must be concerned with what is good for the other people in those relationships. This is where Viduy and confession differ.
The Root of Viduy
Some Rabbis understand the Hebrew word Viduy to be connected to the word Modeh (gratitude). The Jewish concept of gratitude is all about acknowledging the good that has been done for you.
When we view our relationships as calculations of what have I done for you? vs what have you done for me? the relationship is transactional. In this sense, gratitude creates debts to be repaid. Taking someone out for drinks, bringing a bottle of wine to dinner, helping someone move, etc. When acts of kindness are not properly repaid, we can feel resentment, unappreciated, and before long that debt can become an impediment to the whole relationship.
But when we disregard the calculation all together and focus on the acts of kindness done for you without reference to what inspired it, the relationship enters a different nature. Can you ever pay your parents back for what they did to raise and support you? Could you ever thank someone enough for saving your life? Of course not! Even if they are getting paid, such as a police officer or a doctor, does their salary compensate them?
Confession of Gratitude
We all can apologize for wrong doings. But why did we break the rule in the first place? Was it because deep down we think the rule is arbitrary and we were only concerned with not getting caught? Was it because the rule is just difficult to do all the time? However, if we view the rule as important to the other party, and we care about the thoughts and feelings of the other party, it puts the relationship at the forefront.
Relationships impact us in ways we can’t fully identify. Even if we could recall every benefit done for us, we are completely unaware of effort, time, considerations, and unseen kindnesses. Friendships connect us to life, family is an unbreakable bond, and living in a trusted community provides security and assistance impossible to know the full extent of. So if we think about Viduy as less about confessing how we’ve wronged and instead about being oblivious to the good we’ve received, the benefits are far more profound.
Baring abuse, violence, or malicious harm, it does far more good for us to let things go than it does to let anger fester. But when it comes to rectifying a relationship, I think the key idea is that rather than repaying back a debt of gratitude to “even the score,” we should focus far more on making good deeds the norm and a perpetuating that as a behavior. Pay it forward, not back.
At that point, Viduy itself is less about making sure two people are “square” and instead about realizing that we’ve lost sight of the good we’ve received, no matter how small. Then, if we can apply that understanding of gratitude to the Viduy we do on Yom Kippur, it becomes far more relevant. The act of beating our chests and reciting pages of sins that we don’t think apply to us, no longer become obligatory “I’m sorry’s” but instead become statements of gratitude to better help us understand what is important to the Being that is giving us another year.
This post owes most of its ideas to Rabbi Moshe Cohen’s Shabbos Shuva Drosha at The Community Shul.