Yom Kippur Section
Requesting Forgiveness From G-d
- Components of Teshuvah (Return to G-d)
- Regretting Past Misdeeds
- Commitment for Future Correction
- Viduy (Verbal Admission)
- The Value of Verbal Admission
- General vs. Specific Viduy
- Publicizing Sin
- Reciting Viduy Before G-d
In his farewell speech to the Jewish People, Moses encourages them to
take the message of teshuvah to heart. Though they may stray from the path that G-d
has set before them, G-d has imbued every member of the Jewish People with the ability to
return to G-d:
This mitzvah (commandment) that I am prescribing to you today is not
overly mysterious, nor is it remote from you. It is not in heaven, that you should say,
"Who shall go up to heaven and bring it to us, so that we can hear it and keep
it?" It is not beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross the sea and
bring it to us, so that we can hear it and keep it?" For it is something that is very
near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1470-1550, Italy) explains the
reassuring message of teshuvah that is contained in these verses:
"It is not in heaven" The mitzvah of teshuvah
does not require any kind of Divine instruction, which could be acquired only by studying
with a prophet of G-d. There is no need for prophetic vision to instruct anyone in the teshuvah
"It is not remote from you
beyond the sea"
Likewise, teshuvah does not require that you travel to distant places in search of
a Torah sage to guide you in its performance. Teshuvah is distinguished from other
mitzvot (commandments), which require that one seek human guidance to help one perform
"It is something that is very near to you"
Every human being can recognize sin, and its effect on ones relationship with G-d;
all of us can understand the need to admit our sins verbally.
By its very nature, teshuvah is a personal process that defies
precise quantification. Since the most essential elements of teshuvah take place
within our hearts, no one can tell us exactly what we must feel, or how much we must feel.
No matter what our starting point, if approached with sincerity, teshuvah, our
"return to G-d," penetrates to the depths of our soul, and invariably results in
a new and higher relationship with G-d. In this study, we will explore the essential
features of the teshuvah process, all of which are based in the Torah. The Torah
outlines a general path of teshuvah which everyone can follow in order to come
closer to G-d, but along this general path, each individual must forge his own walkway to
Components of Teshuvah
The Torah and Talmudic sources identify three basic components of the teshuvah
process: It must begin from within, with (1) regret over past misdeeds, and then with (2)
a commitment to correct such behavior. The process is crystallized with (3) a declaration
of viduy (verbal admission of sins).
Regretting Past Misdeeds
Regretting sins that we have committed in the past is the first step in
the teshuvah process. Two rabbis explain the role of regret as the initial stage of
Regretting our past sins helps us to clarify our motive for changing
our moral behavior. We want our motive in bettering ourselves to be purely for the
performance of G-ds Will, although people can decide to refrain from sinning in the
future for far less noble causes. They may change their ways because they are no longer
capable of continuing to sin; or they can no longer support a lifestyle that includes a
given sin; or they do not feel themselves attracted to it anymore. The only way that we
can be sure that our decision to change our behavior is based on G-ds Will, is to
feel regret over the fact that we have done it.
[Rabbi Moshe of Trani, 1500-1580, Israel]
Regret clarifies our own recognition of our misdeeds. As long as a
person rationalizes his sinful behavior, he cannot feel remorse. Moreover, one who feels
regret shows that he understands that sin wields a powerful and a lasting influence on his
life. Though we may eventually forget our actions, G-d will always hold us
responsible for our moral behavior.
[Rabbi Bachyai, 11th century, Spain]
Rabbi Bachya goes on to compare our attitude toward sinning against G-d
to our attitude toward sinning against another person. He emphasizes that everything we do
reflects on our relationship with G-d. G-d expects us to maintain a mature
relationship with Him, just as we do with other people. A sincere statement of "I am
sorry" to someone whom we have wronged conveys to that person that we recognize the
consequences of our actions; in the same way, our feelings of regret over our sins serves
as acknowledgment before G-d, Who knows all our thoughts, of the damaging effects of sin
upon our lives.
Commitment for Future Correction
Sincere regret over our past misdeeds must be coupled with a commitment
to improve our actions in the future. On a practical level, sincere remorse is attainable
if we will make a conscientious effort; on the other hand, the prospect of correcting
all those acknowledged behavior patterns is daunting, if not unrealistic. Bad habits are
very difficult to overcome, and any expectations we may have of making radical changes in
our moral behavior cannot be considered reliable. With a full understanding of human
nature, our Sages offer us sound advice in this area:
Realistic Planning: The Value of Small Changes
Rabbi Yochanan assigned his students a task: Go out and discover which
is the most efficacious path to moral improvement. Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye; Rabbi
Yehoshua said: A good friend; Rabbi Yose said: A good neighbor; Rabbi Shimon said: One who
considers the consequences of his deeds; Rabbi Elazar said: A good heart.
[Tractate "Ethics of the Fathers" 2:13]
Rabbi Yonah (1180-1263 Spain) explains the wisdom of
Rabbi Yochanans exercise, and the logic of his students responses:
Addressing their quest for moral perfection, Rabbi Yochanan charged his
students with the task of identifying the single character trait that they should
strive to master as a springboard for the mastery of other virtuous character traits.
Along to road to self-improvement, it is wisest to concentrate our efforts on perfecting
only one facet of our personality, no matter how long it takes, since after that, the
mastery of other traits becomes an attainable goal. If we would attempt to master multiple
attributes simultaneously, it is likely that we will succeed in mastering none of them.
Rabbi Yonah proceeds to explain and elaborate on each of the
"Rabbi Eliezer says: A good eye" This means the
practicing of charitable behavior.
"Rabbi Yehoshuah says: A good friend" It is
easy to befriend a single person, and from this devoted friendship, to develop a love for
"Rabbi Yose says: A good neighbor" Begin by
befriending your neighbors, and, having achieved this, you can succeed in developing a
love for other people.
"Rabbi Shimon says: One who considers the consequences of his
deeds" Before you take any action, stop to consider what it may lead to.
This habit will prevent you from committing a great number of sins.
"Rabbi Elazar says: A good heart" Develop an
attitude of patience and inner harmony, regardless of the events that are taking place
Rabbi Yochanans objective was to have his students isolate a
single aspect on which to focus for moral improvement, and then to build on their
successes. As we develop our personal plans for self-improvement for the upcoming year, we
should likewise aim for gradual, modest achievements, rather than attempt to make sudden,
Return to Sin
We have resolved not to repeat a given sin, and yet we realize that we
have made similar commitments in the past, and have not managed to fulfill them. This
awareness of past relapses into sin fill us with uncertainty: Will G-d accept our teshuvah
if we later return to the very sins that we are now intending to leave behind forever?
Rabbi Saadia Gaon (892-942, Babylon) addresses this dilemma:
Let me further clarify: If, in the process of teshuvah, a person
resolves sincerely that he will not repeat the sin, his teshuvah is accepted. Even
if at some later point he falls prey to the machinations of his Evil Inclination, and is
once again led to sin, his teshuvah is not voided retroactively. Only those actions
that follow his teshuvah will be held against him; however, the sins
preceding his teshuvah remain forgiven.
If one has done a complete teshuvah, an honest commitment, based
on an earnest intention to refrain from a sin, is alone sufficient to ensure that one will