The teshuva process can be very vague and elusive. Unwilling to confront our own flaws and face the unpleasant truths of our past, we often spin false narratives, in a futile attempt to justify our botched behavior. For teshuva to be successful we must cut through numerous layers of self-denial. We must also summon the courage to stare at ourselves in the mirror and confront the ugliness looking back at us, without photoshopping it. Authentic teshuva is a difficult journey through the dark recesses of self and the deepest crevices of our psyche.
Vidui or “verbal confession” is instrumental in helping us pierce the emotional barriers blocking authentic teshuva. Judaism rejects any form of vicarious atonement, and therefore, confession alone can never provide absolution. Verbal confession is, merely, one step in a larger process of heartfelt and sincere teshuva. Verbalizing sin helps concretize the painful realities which we would rather not consider. Articulating a sin makes it harder to deny or to explain away. Additionally, enunciating sins makes them more vivid and more disturbing. Without distress and remorse, repentance becomes artificial and formulaic. By lending verbal imagery to sin, confessions assure that our past behavior is painful and that repentance is genuine. Through confession, we clarify, quantify and vivify our religious failures.
Registries of Sin
Though, ideally, confession should be personal; throughout history, a rich “liturgy” of confessions developed. Lists of sins were compiled into ritual confessions which were then incorporated into tefillah. Generally, the lists were structured upon the Hebrew aleph bet, with each letter addressing a particular sin or a specific character trait which triggers multiple sins. The two most famous lists are the confessionals recited on Yom Kippur, known as “Ashamnu” and “Al chet.”
While these lists provide a common registry of sin, they ignore other important areas of self-improvement. By definition, each of the entries of a vidui list addresses a very specific sin or a very specific area of human behavior. The alphabetized entries are very targeted and narrow and they do not address deeper or broader character flaws. These foundational character flaws or “super flaws” are responsible for our systemic and large-scale religious failure and underperformance.
Every sin is rooted in a deep-seated character flaw. Ignoring these flaws and focusing our teshuva solely upon actions or behavior increases the likelihood of recidivism. Addressing symptoms of sin and ignoring the root almost assures that we will slip back into old habits and to familiar behavior. Telescopic vidui lists fail to address seminal character flaws or basic behavioral issues. Though the lists facilitate micro-teshuva, they aren’t as helpful for macro-transformation.
One example of a broader behavioral tendency which causes extensive religious breakdown is our forgetting basic ideas and values of religion. Typically, we trace our sins to the overpowering desires which conquer our will and shatter our discipline. We possess a clear sense of right and wrong, but are overcome by powerful needs and wants.
Often, however, sin doesn’t stem from desire but from apathy or neglect. We allow important values to slowly slip-out of consciousness and we push important religious principles out of mindview. Often, sins are caused by religious inattentiveness, rather than by religious weakness. For teshuva to be holistic and foundational, we must repent for the sin of inattentiveness and forgetfulness. To accomplish that we must first ask: What do we forget and why do we forget it?
Sadly, we live in a secular era, in which much of humanity has completely forgotten that Hashem exists. Even believers though—in their own way—sometimes forget Hashem. We don’t deny His existence or His authority, but we become so engrossed in our own lives and our own pursuits that Hashem becomes a sideshow. Instead of fixing Hashem as the epicenter of our lives, we think about Him from time-to-time, pray to Him when we need Him, but relegate Him to the margins of our consciousness. We don’t deny Him, nor do we even devalue Him, but we do decentralize Him. We don’t forget Him, but we also don’t remember Him often enough.
Additionally, we sometimes “forget Hashem” by not sufficiently attributing our success to Him. Repeatedly, the Torah warns us that success will morally “fatten” us, making us arrogant, ungrateful and religiously insensitive. The scenes don’t portray atheism or the crime of marginalizing Hashem, but a scenario in which we are hypnotized by success and slip into ingratitude. As a gateway to numerous other moral failures, arrogance is inherently harmful. In addition, too much self-confidence obscures human frailty and human dependence upon Hashem. Success blurs our vision of Hashem. We know He exists, but we don’t trace our success back to Him; so, in effect, we forget Him.
We ask forgiveness for the various ways by which we forgot Hashem.
Sin also emerges when we confuse eternity with transience. Wrapped up in the present, we lose perspective of human immortality. A very famous dictum of the mishna—recited at funerals—urges us to consider “from where we came, where we are headed to and in front of ‘Whom’ we will be held accountable.” By reminding us of human mortality on Earth, this reductive advice prevents us from being trapped in the present. Often this world captivates us with its glamourous pizzazz, and we ignore duty, mission, responsibility and, of course, eternity. We get stuck in the immediate and lose track of the long term. Every sin is a tragic exchange of eternity for immediate needs, which quickly fade. Endlessly executing these sad transactions of sin, we become stuck in the needs of the present, which often leads us to sin.
We ask forgiveness for forgetting the eternity of man.
Forgetting Jewish History
A third vision we often forget is the trajectory of Jewish history. We forget that we live as part of a large intergenerational community of people who stand for Hashem in this world. We are all miracles, the product of great sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish destiny. Viewing our lives as part of something larger than ourselves amplifies our experience. Forgetting our common Jewish narrative shrinks us into lonely individuals. Sin is always a triumph of small mindedness over large mindedness.
Over the past year, too many Israelis forgot our common heritage and have sinned. Independent of whatever political opinion we believe in, we have spewed too much hate and have generated too much polarization. Eighty years ago, a murderer named “Joseph Mengele” divided us into “left” and “right,” horrific designations which decided life and death. Today, we glibly use the terms “left” and “right” to cluster people into clumsy political groupings. Once we group them, they are easier to assail or to insult.
We ask for forgiveness for forgetting our common past and our common future? How could we?
Hopefully, this Yom Kippur—in addition to repenting for specific sins—we will ask Hashem to forgive us for forgetting. Too often we forgot Him, or forgot to think of Him correctly. Too often, we forgot eternity by tragically exchanging it for the passing needs of transience. Too often, we forgot Jewish history and sank into the dark doctrines of radicalized politics and culture wars.
Forgive us Hashem, for we have forgotten.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.