Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech: Admitting one's guilt

The fundamental commandment of repentance is confession - something that is exceedingly difficult for most individuals.

shofar 88 (photo credit: )
shofar 88
(photo credit: )
"And you shall return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice in accordance with every thing I have commanded this day... with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deuteronomy 30:2). So begins the biblical portion which Nahmanides (12th century, Provence) calls "the portion of repentance" - a commandment which is germane 365 days a year but which is especially relevant during the 10 days beginning with Rosh Hashana and concluding with Yom Kippur. Hence this particular biblical reading, falling as it does only one week before Rosh Hashana, is especially opportune. How do we fulfill this commandment? Maimonides seems to explain this in clear terms: "If an individual transgresses any commandment of the Torah, whether it be a positive or negative command, whether he transgressed wittingly or unwittingly, when he repents [does teshuva] and turns away from his sin, he is obligated to confess before God, blessed be He, as it is written, 'A man or woman who transgresses... must confess the sin they have committed...' This refers to a verbal confession, and this confession is a positive commandment..." (Laws of Repentance, 1,1). It seems difficult to understand how the commandment to repent, which I would have thought to be an inner process, a shredding of one's evil impulse and the uplifting of the divine which informs the soul of every human being, could be reduced to a mouthing of words which may be uttered by rote. My teacher Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik taught that there are actually two aspects to the commandment of repentance: firstly, kappara, forgiveness, the mechanical bringing of a sacrificial offering and/or the mouthing of the confessional - which are minimal, at best - and secondly, the more optimal tahara, purity, which requires a transformational experience. Maimonides discusses this second, more powerful aspect of repentance in his second chapter, and calls it "complete repentance" (teshuva gemura). However, despite the classical brilliance of the Rav's interpretation, these last two years have taught me that Maimonides hit upon a significant existential truth when he insisted that the fundamental commandment centers on confession. Apparently what many might think of as a fairly simple and even mechanical formula - "Please [God, spouse, parent, child, neighbor, coworker] forgive me, I have transgressed, sinned, rebelled against you by having done what I did; I am contrite and ashamed by my actions and will never do them again" - is exceedingly difficult for most individuals. During these past years an inordinate number of high-powered civil servants, cabinet ministers and even our two foremost citizens have been indicted by the attorney-general, several have been found guilty and several are beginning prison sentences; a significant number of high-profile rabbis and communal leaders in New York have been apprehended and charged with crimes. To the best of my knowledge, none of them has confessed to wrongdoing, none has publicly admitted guilt. No one stood before the public that elected him, or the congregants who revered him, and said "I'm sorry; I repent of my actions, I'm ashamed. Please forgive me." Why not? Why is confession so difficult? A great sociologist-psychologist once wrote: "There are four 'yous' to every individual: Who you think you are, who others think you are, who you think others think you are, and who you would like others to think you are." The distance between these four yous, especially between who you are and who you would like others to think you are, is what can cause a tragic disconnect within the psyche of many individuals, producing hypocrisy at best and psychosis at worst. Every human being, from the biblical perspective, is a complex creature, consisting of earthly flesh and divine image: "And the Lord God formed the human being of dust from the earth, and He breathed in his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being" (Genesis 2:7). Our sages have taught us, in a prayer to which we rise each morning, "My Lord, the soul you have given me is pure. You created it. You fashioned it. You exhaled it into me from your divine essence." The essence of every individual is the divine entity within him; the external body is merely the shell, which can be peeled away. Each of us wears an outer uniform: the soldier, the policeman, the rabbi, the businessman, the politician, the parent. The word persona or personality comes from the Greek word meaning "mask." Many of our professional identities, the clothes we wear and/or the personality we exude, are meant to express the way we want others to see us. They are the manner in which we want to impress others, but are not necessarily our real selves. Sometimes the garb, the mask becomes so powerful that it overwhelms the divine image within. And if our transgression is of such a nature that it will cause the mask to fall away and reveal the nakedness of the emperor beneath, then one dare not admit one's guilt - perhaps not even to oneself. If we do, it would be like committing suicide, because there would be nothing of ourselves left. If, however, we do play act - utilize an external mask to appear to others the way we wish them to see us, but nevertheless maintain a divine image within us not so far from our public persona - there is still the pristine "you" lurking behind the covering curtains. Then, one can apologize and peel off the external trappings, and the real "you" within the image of the divine can be freed from the mask we thought society wanted us to wear. Then, even a high priest can begin his holy day ritual, despite his eight priestly vestments, with a cry of repentance: "Please, God, forgive." His divine image within was always waiting to come out. The Talmud (B.T Hagiga 13,14) speaks of a once-great Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, famed master of R. Meir, who became a heretic during the Hadrianic persecutions, joined the Roman philosophers and was called Aher, the other one. His disciple begged him to come back, to repent. "No, he said. For me it is too late. I heard the divine voice from behind a partitioned veil say, 'Return, wayward children, except for Aher.'" Rabbi Soloveitchik explained: Aher had overwhelmed his divine image; indeed, as long as Elisha was submerged, it would be too late for repentance. But for Elisha ben Abuya it's never too late. Reactivate your truest self and no matter how far you may have wandered, you too can return to the God whose essence initially formed you. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.