Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur

For the week ending 26 September 2015 / 13 Tishri 5776

Teshuva Through Viduy

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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One of the main services of Yom Kippur is viduy (confession). However this part of the prayers is not easily understood. Why is it necessary for us to verbally announce the sins that we committed? Obviously this confession is not to inform G-d of anything new. As we say in the text of the viduy itself: “What can we say before You…You know the secrets of the world…nothing is hidden from You, and nothing is hidden from Your eyes.” As for us, we know everything that we have done already. What then is the purpose behind confession?

Throughout the year we often rationalize bad behavior through all kinds of farfetched excuses and reasons. Subconsciously we do this to ease our conscience from bearing the guilt of having done something wrong and to justify not changing anything in the comfortable lifestyle we have chosen for ourselves. After doing this long enough we begin to think that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the action, behavior or lifestyle we have chosen. The Gemara says, “One who sins and repeats it, it (the sin) becomes permitted to him (in his own eyes). (Kiddushin 20a)

Based on the above we can suggest that one purpose of the confession is to force us to stop making justifications for our misdeeds. Through verbally admitting the sins that we have committed we are forced to face our wrong decisions. This can then lead us to regret the past and finally to make a commitment not to sin again in the future. Based on this it is no wonder why viduy is such a central theme of Yom Kippur, as it literally leads to the three parts of teshuva that is required of us: verbal admission of guilt, verbal expression of regret for the past and verbal expression of the commitment not to repeat the sin in the future.

Viduy: Mentioning all Sins

In the viduy section of the prayers we mention almost every possible aspect of sin that we may have done. However, to many this sounds problematic. There are many sins in the viduy that most people wouldn’t even dream of doing. How can we as individuals confess for sins that we know we didn’t commit? The Ben Ish Chai addresses this question and gives the following answers in the name of the Chesed L’alafim.

The Jewish people are one entity and are thus responsible for each other, especially if a person was in a position to protest against the sin and failed to do so. Therefore we mention even a sin we didn’t do because another Jew may have committed that sin. This is one reason why the text of viduy is always in the plural.

One must confess for sins that he committed in previous gilgulim (incarnations). However, since he doesn’t know what he may have done, he should confess all the sins. This is also the reason why we say “we have sinned, as well as our ancestors,” since previous gilgulim are referred to as being “ancestors” of the present gilgul.

The sins mentioned in the text can be transgressed in different ways. Let’s look at the three cardinal sins and Chazal’s take on how easily they can be transgressed. Chazal teach that embarrassing someone in public is tantamount to spilling blood because the victim’s face flushes with blood and then turns white from embarrassment (Bava Metzia 58b). The Gemara says elsewhere that one who rips his clothing or breaks a vessel out of anger, or one with excessive pride is looked at as one who worships idols (Shabbat 105b and Sotah 4b). Finally, the Gemara says that merely having thoughts of immorality is in one way even worse than the action (Yoma 29a). This is because through having impure thoughts one is using the highest and most spiritual part of his body, his mind, for evil.

Every person is judged according to his own spiritual standing. Therefore people on a higher spiritual level are held more accountable for even the “smallest” sin. A good example of this is Reuven, who is described in the Torah as having acted immorally with Bilha (Bereishet 35:22). Chazal, however, tell us that all he did was move his father’s bed from one of the maidservant’s tent to his mother’s tent (Shabbat 55b). For someone like Reuven this seemingly minor act was labeled as one of the three cardinal sins for which a person is commanded to be killed rather than commit. Based on this, any sin can be transgressed by any person based on his own spiritual level, and therefore requires viduy.

Viduy for Unintentional Sins

One category of transgressions that we ask forgiveness for on Yom Kippur is unintentional sins. The simple question is why do we need to ask forgiveness for a sin that we did not mean to do? The Alshich explains that the reason why this person stumbled with an unintentional sin was because he had done intentional sins in the past. G-d therefore caused him to sin unintentionally as a way of telling him to change his ways. Were he a righteous person G-d would not make him stumble in sin, as the Gemara says, “G-d does not allow a stumbling block even through the animals of the righteous, all the more so through the righteous ones themselves (Yevamot 99b).

Rabbi Tzadok takes this idea even further, and says that the kind of unintentional sin that is put in his way is also part of the message from G-d. If, for example, a person transgresses Shabbat accidentally, it may very well be a sign from G-d that he is being lax in his observance of Shabbat. This is one reason why we need to do teshuva even for unintentional sins. It was our intentional sins that caused the unintentional sins to come our way. Therefore, in a way, even though we didn’t directly intend for them to happen we are still held accountable for them.

Viduy through the Alphabet

The text of the viduy goes in the order of the Hebrew alphabet. Why is this so? Though there are deep kabbalistic explanations for this. the Chida gives an additional, more basic, answer to this question. He gives an analogy as follows. Imagine a person who only knows the names of the letters but does not know how to read. He can’t learn, he can’t pray, he can’t recite Tehillim. So what does he do? With a full heart he recites the names of the letters over and over again and asks G-d to put the letters together to form the words of the Torah and the prayers as He sees fit. After all, everything is composed of the twenty-two letters of the alphabet.

Similarly when we do viduy, even though we mention many sins, we know that there are probably many more that we left out of the confession. Either we forgot them or through our narrow thoughts we didn’t consider them a wrongdoing. Therefore, we say the viduy using all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and ask G-d to use those letters and form with them the proper confession for all the transgressions that we left out. With this we show our inner desire for change, and, in return, awaken mercy and assistance from Above. The Gemara says, “He who comes to purify himself is helped (by G-d)." (Yoma 38b)

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