Repentance and Confession

The Torah teaches us that it is never too late to change.

Changing for the better is called doing teshuva. The Hebrew word teshuva, which is often translated as repentance, actually means to “return.” Return to God. Return to our pure self.

How do people become interested in self-improvement?

People have faults. The faults they have cause them to suffer in some way or another. This suffering limits an individual’s freedom and is often painful. Hence, people want to change… to improve. To be free once again.

How does one change for the better? How does one do teshuva?

There are four steps of teshuva.

-Rabbi Mordechai Rottman
“Four Steps to Change”

I’m tempted to say something like, “Look! We’re halfway through the process of learning how to repent. Just two more steps to go and we’re home free.”

But if you’ve read the previous two steps and you’ve been paying attention, you realize it’s not that easy. Each step in this process could take weeks or even months to accomplish. I’m not sure if you have to completely finish one step before proceeding to the next, but being a rather linear fellow, that’s how I do it.

That means a single act of repentance isn’t an act at all, it’s a process. To focus on just one habitual sin and truly repent of it, to make teshuva, could take a very long time…it could be months or even years before you get to a place where you know you’ve finally, truly, authentically, completely repented.

And then what if you “backslide?”

But I digress. What about the third step in making teshuva?


Here’s how Rabbi Rottman describes it:

Why is it important to say it?

There is a power to saying things as opposed to just thinking about them. Verbalizing a thought brings the idea to a new level of reality, awareness and understanding.

The verbalization that is done after committing a transgression makes one more fully aware of what was done. It therefore heightens the regret and strengthens the resolution not to commit the act again.

This verbalization is not to be done before anyone other than God. Not even your rabbi needs to know about what you have done. It’s just between you and your Creator.

This reminds me of all the times I’ve seen an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in TV or in a movie. Some guy gets up in front of the group and says, ”I’m So-and-So and I’m an alcoholic.” In the film Finding Nemo (2003), a group of sharks are used to parody this sort of “confessional” meeting (“Fish are friends, not food.”) If you recall that scene, you know things don’t always work out as well as planned.

Humor aside, admitting your sin, especially in front of witnesses, is very powerful, very humbling, and potentially very shaming. You’d have to know you were completely accepted by the group or the person you’re confessing in front of…and it could backfire horribly.

Or at least that’s the fear, which is why most people don’t like making embarrassing admissions about their sins in front of others. Fortunately R. Rottman says that the ”verbalization is not to be done before anyone other than God. Not even your rabbi needs to know about what you have done. It’s just between you and your Creator.”

But there’s always one other living spirit in the room besides God. You.

HitbodedutGod, of course, already knows about our sin, so He’s not exactly surprised. He has no “reaction” as such, except perhaps the reaction of a father welcoming home his wayward son (Luke 15:11-32). However, what happens when we hear ourselves say, “I have sinned”? We think all the time about our sin, particularly during the process of teshuva. We think, we ponder, we feel shame, humiliation, sorrow, regret. We tell ourselves all sorts of negative stories about our sin and who we are as a result of having sinned. We remind ourselves of how many people we’ve hurt or offended, or how hurt our friends and family would feel if they ever knew about our sin, assuming it’s a secret.

But admitting out loud that you have sinned, the nature of your sin, the impact of your sin on others…how would that be? There’s only one way to find out.

Say it.

No, really. Try it out. If you’re reading this blog post and you’re human, you probably have sinned. Unless you are an expert at repentance…true repentance as I’ve been describing in this series, chances are you have something to say to God. It’s not like you’re going to be saying something that you and God don’t already know about. But hearing your own voice articulate your sin makes it seem so…real.

To meditate, try saying a single word out loud, and concentrate on it’s meaning. After ten minutes, your mind will be fully focused.

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg
Total Concentration
from the 48 Ways to Wisdom series

I know ten minutes doesn’t seem very long, but try verbalizing your sins for that length of time and it will seem like an eternity.

Communal confession is not unknown in Judaism and in fact, as part of the Yom Kippur service each year, in synagogue, the people publicly confess in a short alphabetical prayer known as the vidui.

In Judaism, a penitent sinner must give verbal expression to his remorse: He must confess his sin before God pardons him. Strictly speaking, the confession is acceptable even in the bare formulation: “I have sinned,” but more elaborate forms have been compiled and used. Maimonides (Teshuvah, ch.1‑2) holds that the more the sinner confesses at length the better, but gives as the basic form: “O God! I have sinned, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed before Thee by doing such‑and‑such. Behold now I am sorry for what I have done and am ashamed and I shall never do it again.”

Rabbi Louis Jacobs
“Confession (Vidui): A first step toward repairing wrong”

ViduiIn a public confession, there is a formula by which the group recites the vidui and people never openly verbalize their actual, personal sins. This is a mirror of the ancient Yom Kippur service when the Temple was standing in Jerusalem, when the High Priest would enter the Most Holy Place once a year to make atonement for the nation of Israel.

But even hearing yourself recite the vidui should remind you of your actual, personal sins. Even actively contemplating them during the Yom Kippur service should have a profound effect.

Remember, confession isn’t designed to make you feel bad or more guilty. We’ve discussed this before and feeling bad is more likely to result in your continuing to sin and to give up on repentance. By increasing the “reality” of your sin through confession, the idea is to intensify your regret and minimize your negative thoughts and comments about yourself. Having a frank conversation with God is one way of doing that.

There’s a Chassidic concept of prayer called Hitbodedut that might be effective, but it requires that you get to someplace where you can be completely alone and isolated from all distractions.

Opening one’s heart to God is the highest form of Jewish worship. Crying out to Him in spontaneous prayer, even doing so silently, reveals the essence of being: faith. Faith is a natural state, which is why children tend to speak to God directly. As people grow older, many find that their access to faith is obstructed and they experience doubt and lose their faith.

Hitbodedut is a way to unburden the self of doubt and recover a natural state of faith. The best way to achieve this solitude is to leave civilisation and society in order to be surrounded by nature and the wonders of creation. Any form of self-isolation can be effective.

Hitbodedut involves (ideally) going to a natural and secluded setting and “letting it all hang out,” as my generation said in our youth. Yelling, screaming, crying, even playing music, just about any form of self-expression is allowed.

The key to successful hitbodedut is total abandonment of inhibition. Prayers are direct, immediate and uninhibited, a natural outpouring of the soul of all that clouds and confuses its sight. Any natural expression is admissible. This can take the form of weeping, song, conversation, mantra or silent meditation.

This is a no holds barred, knock down, drag out conversation with God. It’s not even remotely polite or reserved, so you have to be willing to be honest with God and with yourself, and then to express yourself out of that honestly. Why not? God knows it all anyway.

In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.

Hebrews 5:7 (NASB)

anguishThe writer of the book of Hebrews describes Jesus (Yeshua) as praying in such a manner ”with loud crying and tears.” D. Thomas Lancaster in the Source of Eternal Salvation lecture from his Holy Epistle to the Hebrews series believes this describes Jesus at Gethsemane.

And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.

Luke 22:44 (NASB)

We may never experience the anguish and agony of the Master, but that doesn’t mean our own confessions and prayers to God should be any less passionate.

For successful teshuva, we have to realize that God loves us – even in light of all the mistakes we’ve made. Realize that God understands you, that He’s “cheering you on,” and wants to help. Don’t feel guilty; any mistakes you’ve made are part of a growth process to get where you are today. Growth is what God created us for, and even the hardships are the best thing for us. God is not the “big bully in the sky”; He’s on your side.

-from Ask the Rabbi
“Doing Teshuva”

The Aish Rabbi in his missive also reference to the four steps to making teshuva, but he adds this:

These steps go only so far, however. If our past actions have hurt another person, we must ask their forgiveness.

It is said that if we have sinned against God and confess to Him and make teshuva, He will forgive us. It is also said that if we have sinned against another, even if we confess to God, He will not forgive us until we have made amends to the person we’ve hurt.

Judaism, being a religion of action, says it is not enough to “mentally” regret one’s misdeeds. On this week’s verse that “very close is this (matter of Teshuva) to your mouth,” Nachmanides takes this passage literally; he understands that Teshuva requires verbal articulation of our misdeeds.

In instances where someone else was wronged, an apology must be made directly to that person. In instances where we transgressed the Almighty’s will, we must privately, with no one listening, confess to our Creator.

-Rabbi Yehuda Appel
“Asking Forgiveness”
Commentary on Torah Portion Nitzavim

TearsWhile the principle of confessing our sins to another person is sound, the practice may be fraught with problems, especially if the sin is secret and especially if your confession to the other person may cause them great harm. The complexities of confessing sin to another human being go beyond the scope of this small commentary, but I’ll try to address this part of making teshuva in brief, since it is an unavoidable truth that we have hurt another person in this life, and it is inevitable that we will have to face them.

For some people, the most difficult thing in the world is to ask for forgiveness.

If you find it difficult to ask for forgiveness, visualize yourself asking for forgiveness. Mentally see yourself approaching someone and saying, “I am sorry that I caused you pain. Please forgive me.” Rerun this picture in your mind over and over again. Feel a sense of strength and release at being able to do this.

Each time you ask for forgiveness and find it difficult, you are building up your inner resource of courage.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Asking For Forgiveness”
Daily Lift #353

The Bible tells us that if we confess to God and make teshuva, God will forgive, but with other people there are no guarantees. We can sincerely ask for their forgiveness, but they don’t have to forgive. Yes, they should, but people are fickle that way. This is the biggest risk in trying to a repair damaged relationship. The other party may be too hurt to forgive. They’re not ready. They may never be ready.

And even if they forgive, they may never reconcile with you because of their hurt. A wife may forgive her husband for abusing her after he has made teshuva, but she may never feel safe enough to stay with him and they may still divorce.

But what alternative do you have?

There is a flip side, also presented by Rabbi Pliskin:

When we forgive others, we help ourselves as much as we help those whom we forgive. We are elevating ourselves and will feel much better when we forgive, than if we would keep on adding more and more resentment.

Try it for a couple of weeks. At night, think about any difficulties you had with others and forgive them. Notice how it will change your attitude toward those people the next day.

A person who threatens, “I’ll remember that,” or “I’ll get even with you,” hurts himself more than he hurts others. Why suffer from resentment when you can choose the pleasure of forgiving?

Hitbodedut in ShiloConfess to God. Hear yourself say the words. Let yourself react to the reality of your sin. Let yourself be motivated to take further steps in making teshuva. If another person is suffering because of your sin, make amends as best as you can. This is part of healing the rift between you and that person and between you and God. This is part of repairing the world.

This is part of healing you.

The ultimate goal of teshuva is to draw nearer to God, to be Holy even as God is Holy (Leviticus 19:1-2). To learn more about holiness and how to become a Holy person in a hedonistic world, read Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s commentary on Torah Portion Kedoshim at Torah.org.

Do you think He created us because He wanted pristine, perfect beings?

He desired that a glimmer of Himself should descend into a creature who cries and laughs and dances and bleeds; who fails as much as he succeeds; who chases after fleeting moments and is torn by figments of his own mind.

He wanted to live in the petty world of such a being, and from within that place He will come to know His self that cannot be known.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on the letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

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