HILKHOT TESHUBA 1:1. To be or not to be specific?

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אומר אנא ה ‘חטאתי עוויתי פשעתי לפניך, ועשיתי כך וכך, והרי ניחמתי ובושתי במעשיי, ולעולם איני חוזר לדבר זה.

Yesterday we began to explain the Viduy. Maimonides said that Teshuba includes two elements: 1. guilt, repentance, remorse and 2. confession or Viduy, i.e., articulating in words what I did wrong. This confession is done in private. We do not reveal our sins in front of others, or in the presence of a rabbi. We whisper our transgressions without anyone else listening, knowing and thinking that we are in front of God.

We explained the first three concepts of the Viduy. We shall see now how the Viduy continues.

ועשיתי כך וכך Maimonides says that after mentioning in general terms our wrongdoings saying “I was wrong, I have sinned, I rebelled” I should describe my transgressions more specifically.

There is a discussion in the Talmud between two rabbis. The question is whether when reciting the Viduy one must be specific and mention in detail his or her wrongdoings (this is the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah ben Baba) or one can simply say in general terms that he has done many wrong things (this is the opinion of Rabbi Aqiba).

The Shulhan Aruch follows the opinion of Rabbi Aqiba, saying that it is enough if we repent in general for all our transgressions without specifying in detail what we’ve done wrong. This indulgence aims to not discouraging a person who wants to repent but feels that he is not able to (or brave enough to) remember all the details of his misbehavior. Requiring from such a person a detailed confession “might close the doors” from his Teshuba, in other words, it could deter someone from beginning the process of Teshuba because a full disclosure of our sins is emotionallly and psychologically an extremely difficult task.

Maimonides, however, recommended the first approach: being specific. He indicates that one has to disclose in his private confession everything bad that he has done, as much as one can remember. This confession is more credible, more serious, more sincere. As a parent, I believe that it’s not the same if my son apologizes in general terms (Today I misbehaved in school!) that if he discloses in detail what really happened there.

In practical terms, it is obviously sufficient to adopt the position of rabbi Aqiba and the Shulhan Aruch. However, if you want to follow the opinion of Maimonides you should spend a few days to doing a deep introspection, exercising your memory to identify your wrong deeds, fighting against your own instinct of denial and fear of guilt. The text of Viduy that we say in these days of Selichot should serve as a reminder of the issues which we need to fix, repent for and correct.

If we take this spiritual exercise seriously, we should write for ourselves a list of the transgressions that we can remember and read that list in a low voice when we say the Viduy during Yom Kippur.

The rabbis introduced the following profound idea in the prayers of High Holy Days: In terms of our transgressions to God (Not to other people) God forgets and forgives all that we remember and confess. And He remembers, does NOT forgive, all that we negligently forget or do not confess.

All this intense spiritual activity can not be done during a single day. That’s why we spend forty days to exercise our Teshuba, from the beginning of Elul until Yom Kippur, the day that we devote ourselves entirely to Teshuba and Viduy.

To be continued….