Shabbat Shalom: Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “When a man or woman shall commit any sin that people may commit, to do a trespass against the Lord, and that person be guilty; then they shall confess their sin which they have committed…” (Numbers 5:6–7)
According to Maimonides, this verse, which obligates confession, is the basic source for the commandment of repentance; repentance is incomplete without verbal confession. Writing in his Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Teshuva 1:1) he rules that “every commandment in the Torah… if a person violates any one of them either intentionally or accidentally, his act of repentance must be accompanied with confession before God, because it’s written in the Torah ‘then they shall confess their sin which they have committed.’”
Detailing the nuts and bolts of repentance, Maimonides divides the process into four pragmatic steps: recognition of sin, confession, the act of resolving never to repeat the sin, and – in order to effectuate “total” repentance – resistance from repeating the transgression when faced with a similar temptation under similar circumstances. Hence guilt, the inevitable accompaniment of sin, can be dealt with by means of repentance, which has the power to totally obliterate the act of wrongdoing.
In contrast, Freud, when he discovered the Oedipal complex, assigned mankind a guilt so profound that his message of the “haunted soul” permeates the modern sensibility, from the bleak no-exit landscapes of the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman to the comic-cosmic ones of Bergman’s disciple Woody Allen. According to them, not only are we doomed to repeat the sins of our parents, but we are also limited – and even crippled – by the transgressions of our past. All of us, the theory goes, suffer from primal guilt. The past is inescapable. And inevitably, being born into a situation beyond our control, guilt is coupled with gloom. At best we learn to acknowledge our past, and make do. The past controls our present as well as our future!
But in Judaism, as we began to see from Maimonides, a violation of any of the commandments – whether it was purposeful or accidental, conscious or unconscious – may be repented for and forgiven. That and more: a sin may become the means – a sort of pogo stick – for creative betterment; a transgression may be transformed into a good deed, a black mark into a brilliant jewel – a sort of alchemy for the soul. No, Dr. Freud, not only is our present not controlled by the past, but our present has the ability to change the past. As Professor Mordechai Rotenberg of the Hebrew University establishes in his work, Rebiographing and Deviance, repentance is built into the theology of Judaism, allowing us not only to escape from the permanent scars of past misdeeds but through a transformative ascent, our sins become virtues – not just in the metaphoric sense, but in real psychological and interpersonal terms. Through the gift of repentance, each individual can re-biographize the events of his life, transforming transgression into a virtue.
Sources for such transformation can be found in a wide range of classic texts. For example, the Talmud (Yoma 86b) cites Resh Lakish, himself a repentant armed robber, as saying that “when true repentance takes place all transgressions are turned into merits,” and Rabbi Abbahu (Berakhot 34b), who taught that “where the penitent stands is higher than that of the completely righteous individual.” How is this possible? After all, “of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’” How can we recreate, recast, the past? My rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, discusses this issue in his classical work Al HaTeshuva (On Repentance, edited by Pinĥas Peli), and he explains it on the basis of the realization that it is usually only when one loses something – an object or a relationship – that one truly appreciates its value. Hence, tragically perhaps, only when one has lost his closeness to God and the Jewish tradition can one truly re-embrace them in depth, and then with even greater fervor and appreciation than before. As the great Psalmist King David cried out, “From the depths [of despair] do I call upon you, O God” (Psalms 130:1); it is precisely the depths of my despair that provide me with a jump-start, a push upwards to achieve a close relationship.
I would like to suggest a further insight. After all, the pen used to rewrite our lives (rebiographing) is called repentance, as we have just seen, and it itself is one of the 613 commandments in the Torah. And to repent means to turn back, to turn ourselves back to the period before we sinned, to turn the clock of our lives back as well. Even though Maimonides divides the process into four steps, confession must be particularly important to him because, in his first law in the chapter of repentance, a paragraph of eighteen lines (in my edition of Mishneh Torah, published by Mossad Harav Kook), the Hebrew word for confession, vidui, is repeated no less than thirteen times.
Perhaps by repeating “verbal confession” so often, Maimonides provides us with a clue as to the process by which Judaism turns sins into virtues.
Confessions which lead to a change of heart and personality (recognizing a sin and truly determining, and garnering the strength, never to repeat it again) differ qualitatively from confessions when lying on a psychiatrist’s couch or in a dark confessional booth. Authentic confession must be expressed directly to the individual one sinned against. Such a verbal confession – when the lips utter the words to be heard – becomes not only an “at-one-ment” between two individuals who had become alienated and estranged from each other, but it also makes the individual “at-one” with himself, the self he would like to be and the self he has sadly become. It also brings together and makes “at-one-ment” between conflicting parts of a person’s consciousness: heart and mind, internal feeling and external communication. It allows the individual to confront and verbally express his sin, his imperfection, his failure, to conceptualize what he has done, first to himself, and then to the other he has wronged. It enables him to reconnect with his full self as well as with others, without the mask of self-deception and without the curtain of separation. Only from such a brutal and truthful encounter with oneself as well as with other can the difficult process of change begin.
A sin (ĥet) is literally a missing of the mark, a disconnect, a failure to make the proper connection and reach out to the other in love. It’s clear that Erich Segal’s ridiculous message that love means “never having to say you’re sorry” is in direct opposition to the Torah’s view. Much the opposite! Saying you’re sorry to another is recognition of the other, of realizing the pain of the other. Saying you’re sorry in a relationship is an admission of love, a cry from one heart to another that one feels and sees the hurt that one has caused the other, that one has the courage to admit one’s smallness, one’s selfishness, one’s self-centeredness in the presence of the other, whose love will empower the beloved to become whole, to grow, and to give again.
Words are the first tangible, external expression of a new reality; real change can only be proven by different external actions. If verbal confession cannot be spoken, if the individual cannot bring him or herself to at least face and express the crime against the other with words of sorrow and remorse, change will never be effectuated and the relationship between the two will never be repaired. Words can at least begin to create new realities, and a new reality can hopefully create a new individual and a new relationship.
Many years ago a married woman with two children came into my office, confessing that she had encouraged a relationship with a single man; they had stopped just short of adultery, her husband had found out and he now wanted to divorce her. She confronted her guilt, recognized who she had become and how much she had sacrificed for momentary lust, and spoke of how she truly loved her husband and desperately wanted to save their marriage and make amends for what had happened. After meeting with both of them, it also became clear that the husband had been neglecting his wife, that his business had taken him away from home much more often than he should have traveled, and that he too shared in her guilt – although not to the same extent. Each confessed wrongdoing to the other, each recognized the need for change, and not only did the marriage continue but it became much improved. In a very real way, the woman’s transgression became transformed into a merit; it served as a spark-plug and wake-up call for two individuals to learn how to live with one another in love, consideration, and mutual commitment. Their present repentance redeemed the past and dramatically changed their future. There is no greater tribute to and confirmation of human freedom than the possibility of change, of growth, of renewal – than the mitzva of repentance.