Stirring up the Dark Past
Chapter 2, Law 8(b)
"The confession ("viduy") which all of Israel is accustomed [to say] is, 'In
truth, we have sinned...' This is the primary viduy.
"Sins which a person confesses to on this Yom Kippur, he must again confess
to on future Yom Kippurs, even though he has remained in his state of
penitence. [This is] as it is stated, 'Because my transgression I will know,
and my sin is before me constantly' (Psalms 51:5)."
Last week we discussed the viduy (confession) which is customary on Yom
Kippur. We noted that the version the Rambam presents here is much shorter
than the lengthier one he outlined for the rest of the year. During the rest
of the year one must explicitly state that he regrets his sins and commits
to improve for the future. Here the repenter seems to only need to list his
sins -- not even that he regrets them -- and somehow that in itself causes
them to fall away.
The explanation, as we discussed last week, is that on Yom Kippur far less
is required to achieve atonement. On Yom Kippur we have no drive for evil;
we become re-attuned to our inner selves. Thus, we need not explicitly state
that we regret our evil behavior; such is self-evident. We need only
enumerate those faults which are clearly no longer a part of us.
There is another important idea in this mishna, which I thought we'd devote
this week to discussing. At the end of the mishna, the Rambam states that we
must confess over past years' sins as well -- even those which we've atoned
for already in the past.
This in fact is a debate in the Talmud (Yoma 86b). One opinion there states
that it is not proper to again confess sins a person confessed in the past.
That opinion applies to such behavior the verse: "As a dog returning to its
vomit is a fool repeating his folly" (Proverbs 26:11). (I realize the
relevance of the verse is difficult to fathom -- more on that below.)
The other opinion (R. Eliezer ben Yaakov), however, states that one should
re-repent over past sins, basing it on the verse the Rambam quoted above:
"Because my transgression I will know, and my sin is before me constantly."
The other verse about a fool returning to his fully, explains R. Eliezer, is
not discussing one who returns to his *repentance* but one who returns to
his *sin* ("his folly").
This is a fascinating dispute so I thought we should spend a little time
examining both positions. As we know, all the scholars cited in the Talmud
were outstanding and their opinions worthy of analysis -- even those
positions we do not follow in Jewish law. (As a matter of fact, in this case
some later scholars do follow the first opinion. See for example _Sha'arei
Let me begin with the (anonymous) first opinion -- that one should not
reconfess his past sins. He bases it upon the verse in Proverbs which
equates a fool returning to his folly to a dog returning to its vomit. His
understanding of the verse is clearly problematic. Returning to one's folly
*sounds* like returning to his sinful ways -- not returning to *confess*
them! How can this scholar possibly understand this verse as a condemnation
of redundant confession?
The answer I would like to suggest is that reviewing one's past sins can
have a very negative effect on a person. As we explained in past weeks, true
teshuva (repentance) is utterly rejecting one's past. It is not: "Those were
the good old days, but nebach (unfortunately), now I know better and have to
behave." The true repenter cringes at the memory his past errors and wishes
they had never occurred. He has completely disassociated himself with his
past. It is no longer any part of who he is today.
Based on this, we can appreciate how dangerous it is to revisit in one's
mind his past sins. If I review my past behavior in detail -- allegedly to
repent over it -- I may well invoke some very fond memories, even stoke up
some old passions. My sins should be a part of my forgotten past; they have
no relevance to who I am and what I value today. They have long been put
aside and forgotten. Raising them up again before me may well do very little
good and a lot of harm -- returning me right back to the vomit I once
thought I had rejected.
There is another equally dangerous possibility here -- actually a point
argued in the work _Sha'arei Teshuva_. ("The Gates of Repentance" authored
by R. Yonah of Gerona (13th Century Spain). This is the work I quoted above
as deciding in favor of the first opinion in the Talmud -- that one should
*not* confess over sins he's already confessed in the past.)
People often want a little inspiration on Yom Kippur, to work up their
emotions in order to really get excited about the day. One means of doing
this is to really work oneself into a frenzy over how bad he used to be. Say
a fellow really sowed some wild oats in his earlier years, only to later
become more religious. He may review and reinvoke his dark past in order to
overwhelm himself with horror over his earlier sins. He will then feel so
penitent he'll fling himself even closer to G-d.
The problem with such behavior is that such a person allows himself to get
all worked up over sins which really are no longer a part of him anymore. He
will shake himself up over long-forgotten sins -- and as a result will fail
to focus on his newer, much more relevant faults. I once heard R. Yitzchak
Berkovitz (Jerusalem) state that re-repenting over past sins should take
about five seconds: "That's not who I am anymore." Such a person should then
move on to more relevant issues and challenges. Reliving the past -- even if
it does make the person penitent rather than reminiscent -- will merely
involve him in regretting sins he should have long ago forgotten.
After this introduction, we must now return to R. Eliezer's (and the
Rambam's) opinion that one *should* confess sins he has confessed already.
What about all the dangers we've discussed up until now?
The answer is that this opinion recognizes there is much to be gained by
repeating one's repentance. Confession is not the same activity from one
year to the next. It is not simply a matter of repeating every year the same
"I did X wrong." The greater we have become and the further we have
distanced ourselves from our pasts, the more meaningful our teshuva becomes.
Every year we have an even greater appreciation just how awful X is. As a
result we will distance ourselves ever further from our past ways and regret
them ever harder.
I recall, say 30+ years ago, watching television programs which even at the
time I realized were hardly appropriate for a G-d-fearing Jew. However,
growing up often exposed to that kind of stuff, I didn't *really* appreciate
how indecent and explicit such material was. (And this was 30 years ago. I
shudder to think what sort of stuff our youth is exposed to today -- even on
public television.) Thus, such viewing material didn't bother me so much at
the time -- or even shortly after when I went off to yeshiva and outgrew
that kind of nonsense. Even after I was no longer involved in such modes of
entertainment, I had not really rejected and distanced myself from them.
Today, however, so many more years distant from such experiences, I've come
to appreciate just how inappropriate such viewing material was and the
better I can distance myself from its negative aftereffects -- and take
equal care to distance my own children from such.
So too, argues R. Eliezer, we are obligated to rehash our past sins. Of
course we must not dwell on them too heavily -- neither to pique our
interests in them nor to dwell on the past rather than on the present. Yet
the more we grow and the further we distance ourselves, the more we will
regret and the closer we will resultantly return ourselves to our Creator.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org