Dear Rabbi Fried,
Although this is somewhat embarrassing, I have a confession to make. I’m well aware of the Catholic notion of confession, but, although I am Jewish, I’m not sure how we Jews do confession of our sins. I’ve never heard of a Jew going to a rabbi to do a confessional, but I’ve also never heard of a Jew doing a confessional without a rabbi. I was thinking about this with Yom Kippur coming up soon; is there an official process by which Jews repent?
We Jews, indeed, do confession. The Torah tells us that when one realizes he or she performed a wrongdoing and wishes to repent, they need to confess the wrongdoing; not to a rabbi, but directly to G-d. This doesn’t mean to negate the possibility or, at times, the advisability of discussing a wrongdoing with a rabbi to obtain the Jewish wisdom of how to make amends for the misdeed. Especially when a negative act was perpetrated to another person and caused that person monetary, emotional or bodily hurt, one needs to make sure they make proper amends in a way which satisfies the Torah’s requirements. In addition, one needs to deliver a heartfelt apology and receive the person’s forgiveness before seeking amends with the Al-mighty for having transgressed His will. Often one needs the counsel and advice of a rabbi to perform this process properly and sufficiently. At times a person needs to discuss a wrongdoing with a rabbi to “come clean” emotionally and receive the support they need to embark on the path of recovery from that act and with that support, develop the inner reservoirs of strength to stay on the path and continue to do the right thing. That wouldn’t necessarily need to be a rabbi; but often one receives that kind of a support from a rabbi or rebbetzin with whom they have developed a relationship. All of the above is still not “confession”; in Judaism we only confess our misdeeds directly to G-d with no intermediaries.
The Jewish process of repentance, from the Hebrew “teshuvah” or “return,” is threefold:
Remorse. The person recognizes they have performed a wrongdoing or misdeed and feels bad about it, as the person has betrayed the trust G-d placed in him or her as a Jew and has transgressed G-d’s will. This has many possible levels, depending on the spiritual station the person is on. It ranges from simple remorse all the way to deep and profound levels of embarrassment and shame before the Al-mighty for what they have done. (This doesn’t mean walking around depressed; it’s the feelings one has when dealing with the issue, otherwise one needs to always be in a state of joy!)
Resolve. The person resolves and accepts upon themselves not to return to this path or repeat the misdeed again. This includes thinking through the precautions or fences one erects to ensure this resolve is taken with true integrity. It also includes making the amends to the other human being if the misdeed was a wrongdoing to another, as we mentioned above.
Confession. The person then turns to G-d, confesses to Him the wrongdoing and prays for forgiveness and for His help in not returning or repeating the act again.
Although this process applies all year, it is a special mitzvah to perform it during the period leading up to, and especially on, the day of Yom Kippur. On that day G-d is closer to us than any day of the year and is reaching out His hands to us — awaiting our return, our teshuvah — and to give His embrace.
Wishing all the readers a sweet New Year!
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of DATA–Dallas Area Torah Association.