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Yom Kippur: The Secret of our Viduy

As the day of Yom Kippur approaches, a day that the Rambam (Teshuvah 2:7) describes as the “moment of pardon and forgiveness for Israel,” it is of great importance to reflect on the mitzvah of teshuvah, and on the steps it involves.

What then is the essence of teshuvah, and how does the service of Yom Kippur reflect it? The better prepared we arrive, the more we will be able to take out of the great day ahead.

The Mitzvah of Viduy

Observing the rulings of the Rambam (Laws of Teshuvah 1:1), it appears that a person’s obligation of repentance is not repentance per se, but rather confession: “All the mitzvos of the Torah… when a person repents from them and returns from his sins, he must confess before G-d…. This confession is a Positive Commandment.”

The wording of the Rambam implies that the mitzvah is confession: When a person wishes to repent for his misdeeds, he is obligated to confess them. A similar implication emerges from the wording of the Rambam in Sefer Ha-Mitzvos (73): “[T]o confess sins that we have sinned before G-d, and to state them with our repentant—this is viduy.”

Indeed, the heading given by Sefer Ha-Chinuch for Mitzvah 364 is “The Mitzvah of Confessing Sin.” The Chinuch proceeds to explain that “When we come to regret them, we are commanded to confess our sins before Hashem.”

Dwelling on the specific mitzvah of confession, the Meshech Chochmah (Devarim 31:17) explains that the actual obligation of teshuvah, repentance, emerges from every one of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvos. After having transgressed a mitzvah, the mitzvah itself compels a person to leave his wayward ways, and return to the true fulfillment of the mitzvah. The additional mitzvah of teshuvah, he concludes, beyond the obligation to refine one’s ways, must refer to confession.

A Mitzvah to Repent

Other rishonim, however, write that there is a full Torah mitzvah of repentance. According to Rabbeinu Yonah, “The Torah instructs us a number of times in repentance.” One of the places is without doubt the verse “You shall return to Hashem, your G-d” (Devarim 30:2), which the Ramban (Devarim 30:11) interprets as a concrete instruction to repent from wayward ways.

According to the Rambam and the Chinuch, it is possible that this verse should is interpreted as a promise for the future, and not as an actual instruction. The Ramban, indeed, mentions that this meaning is also latent in the text, but explains that the prophecy of future repentance means to add to the basic meaning of a Torah instruction.

Yet, it is noteworthy that in the caption he gives to the Laws of Repentance, the Rambam writes that the laws include one mitzvah: “This is the mitzvah of the sinner’s returning from his seen before Hashem, and confessing.” This wording (which is the version preferred by the Frankel Edition) implies that there is an actual mitzvah of repentance, together with the mitzvah of confession.

Assuming that there is a full Torah mitzvah of repentance, we will find an elegant explanation for the teaching of Rabbi Eliezer (Shabbos 153a), as interpreted by the Gemara, whereby a person should repent every day. The Ramban, too, in his famous letter to his son, writes that a person must “analyze his deeds morning and evening, and thereby you will spend all your days in repentance.”

If the Torah instructs us in a mitzvah of repentance, it follows that a person must repent always, for such is the mitzvah of the Torah—to repent for our sins. A person who does not repent for his sins fails to perform the Torah instruction of teshuvah!

The Centrality of Viduy

Whether it is a full mitzvah in its own right, or part of the general mitzvah of teshuvah, it is clear that viduy, confession, is a central part of the teshuvah process. We have already noted the wording of the Rambam, who places great emphasis on viduy, and all authorities concur that confession is an integral part of repentance.

Indeed, we need only look to the Yom Kippur prayer service to see just how central viduy really is. Over the course of the day, we say the order of viduy no less than ten times, twice in each of the five prayers—this in addition to the viduy of Minchah on Yom Kippur eve. The patent emphasis on viduy denotes its centrality to the service of repentance that the day of Yom Kippur demands.

The question we ask is: Why? The idea of regret (charata) is well-understood. Surely, we cannot repent without regretting our sins. The idea of accepting upon ourselves to better our ways, and to refrain from future sinning, which is the third component of teshuvah, is also understandable. Repentance cannot be sincere without some form of acceptance for the future.

But why is viduy, confession, so central to teshuvah? What is the purpose of confessing, time and again, the sins we have committed?

The Process of Falling and Rising

Discussing Torah study, the Gemara (Gittin 43a) writes that a person does not reach a true and full understanding of Torah learning unless he first misunderstands them. The principle is well known to anybody who has tasted the sweet taste of Torah understanding. A first impression is never the end of the road; it cannot be, for it always includes some element of misunderstanding. Only after one gets past the initial misunderstanding can a person reach a full and true grasp of Torah.

Elsewhere, Chazal imply that a similar principle applies beyond the sphere of Torah study. In discussing the calculation of the seventy-year Babylonian exile, the Gemara (Megillah 12a) states that even Daniel was mistaken in his calculation.

This fact is derived from a verse stating that Daniel “understood (meaning, in this context, calculated) from books.” The word ‘understood,’ explains Rava, implies a previous mistake. Arriving at a full understanding necessitates an initially blemished understanding. Of course, this does not mean that the initial grasp must be totally askew of the truth; something, however, must be lacking.

A pasuk clarifies that this process, whereby an initial failing is required in order to reach the required goal, is not limited to the sphere of the intellect. Rather, the need for an original blemish before arriving at an intellectual truth is a specific case of a broader human phenomenon, which finds expression in the words of Shlomo Ha-Melech (Mishlei 24:16): “Sevenfold a tzaddik will fall, and he stands!”

The ultimate standing of the tzaddik, as Rav Hutner (Letters, no. 128) explains, is not in spite of his initial falling, but rather as a result of it. It is only by means of falling and rising, by a process of stumbling and recovering, that the tzaddik reaches his final destination.

Of course, this does not mean that a person should strive to fall, Heaven forbid. Our constant obligation is to avoid falling, to cling to good and steer clear of evil. Yet, after human failing takes its unfortunate toll, the fall itself carries the potential for forming the path to ultimate growth.

The pasuk (Michah 7:8) thus states: “Though I have fallen, I will rise; though I sit in darkness, Hashem will be my light.” The course towards standing consists of falls; the path to light is paved with bricks of darkness.

The Rise of Teshuvah

The process whereby fall precedes rise is etched into the very fabric of the creation. In the creation of the world itself, Chazal (Bereishis Rabbah 3:7) write that Hashem “created worlds and destroyed them.” The universe that was finally created, a world that has long-term existence, was not the first version. Only after the world was first created, and destroyed, did the world as we know it come into being.

In Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (Chap. 3) we find an addition to the teaching of the Midrash: “So Hakadosh Baruch Hu destroyed the world from before Him, and it did not stand until He created teshuvah.” The final standing of the world, the emergence of a permanent creation after initial destruction, is the secret of teshuvah.

This, too, is the secret of the final rising of the tzaddik after his initial fall. The human path towards each person’s destiny is a path of falls and risings, of stumbling and recovery. This path is termed teshuvah. Its translation in terms of human action is viduy.

Confession: Walking the Path

If the tzaddik falls, but does not realize that he has fallen, he will never get up. A person is only able to arise from his fall, only capable of learning from his errors, after he consciously acknowledges them. Without the initial acknowledgment, the mistake remains a mistake—forever. The fallen stays fallen; the sin remains a sin.

The method by which sin, the tragedy of human failing, becomes part of the process that ultimately leads a person to his final destiny, is teshuvah. The most central component of teshuvah is viduy, confession.

The essence of confession is thus a declaration of awareness—an awareness that we walk the path of teshuvah. “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu.” We do not declare that we are thieves, but only that we have stolen; we do not say that we are traitors, but only that we have been treacherous. We declare that our deeds have let us down, but not that the falls define our essence.

In declaring that we have fallen we state: “We have fallen, but we will rise.”

A Day of Confession

As the Rambam writes (Teshuvah 2:7), there is one day of the year when Hashem atones for the sins of Israel: the day of Yom Kippur. “Therefore,” continues the Rambam, “all are obligated to repent and to confess on Yom Kippur.”

There is one day of the year that reveals how falls can become landmarks, how stumbling can become integral parts of the path itself. As mentioned, we cannot choose to fall. Indeed, one who does so, claiming that “I will sin, and I will repent,” is not denied the opportunity to repent (Yoma 65b). Yet, post factum, there is one day, the day of Yom Kippur, when our sins become part of the course that life must plot.

The very nature of the day obligates us in the act of teshuvah, and specifically, in the act of confession. It is incumbent upon us to be aware of our fall, to note them and to declare them. In doing so we join ourselves to the great power of the day to turn falls into risings. In a single word, it is incumbent upon us to confess.

This, indeed, is what we do. Throughout the day of Yom Kippur, we recite confession after confession, until we complete ten orders of confession, two for each of the five prayers of the day. Each time, we deepen our awareness of our failing. We have sinned; we have fallen. We are filled with profound regret for our misdeeds—as the Mabit writes (Kiryas Sefer, Teshuvah 1:16; based on Rambam 2:3), confessing without regret is akin to immersing in a ritual bath with a source of defilement in one’s hand. Yet, our hope lies in the very recognition of our failings.

“Though I have fallen, I will rise; though I sit in darkness, Hashem will be my light.” The deeper our awareness of the darkness, the greater our preparedness for the light; the profounder our perception of fall, the higher we are able to rise.

When Sins become Years

Recalling the Yom Kippur miracle of the crimson thread, the prophet Yeshayahu predicts the future cleansing of sin: “Come, now, let us reason together, says Hashem. If your sins are like scarlet they will become white as snow; if they have become red as crimson, they will become [white] as wool” (Yeshayahu 1:18).

The Gemara (Shabbos 89b) notes that the word scarlet, shani, is written with an extra letter nun, rendering shanim, years. The years of the world, explains Rav Yitzchak, are closely related to the concept of teshuvah: “Hakadosh Baruch Hu told Israel: If your sins will be as these years, which are arranged and come to pass from the six days of creation until now, they will become white as snow.”

The power of teshuvah, and in particular on the day of Yom Kippur, is to transform a fall into a path, a path that is “arranged and comes to pass from the six days of creation”—part, as it were, of the original plan.

From being sullied and disgraced by sin, a person thus emerges clean and pure (Rambam, Teshuvah 7:6). At the highest level, his very sins are transformed even into credits (Yoma 96b). The sins of a baal teshuvahhis sins and not his mitzvos—ultimately lift him beyond the level that the entirely righteous can reach (Sanhedrin 99a).

That which is required of us is confession—authentic, true confession, which is accompanied by deep regret for the tragic departure from the Divine will. Insofar as we confess, truly and sincerely, we make our sins into a path: A path that transforms troughs into peaks, and failures into eternal triumph.

Wishing a gemar chasimah tovah to all readers, and to the entire House of Israel.

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