Guilt upon the conscience, like rust upon iron, both defiles and consumes it, gnawing and creeping into it, as that does which at last eats out the very heart and substance of the metal.
-Bishop Robert South
In Temple times, there were a number of different sacrifices that one could bring. There was the sin-offering, meant as a direct expiation for particular sins. There was the thanksgiving-offering, which as the name implies was offered when we were particularly grateful for something in our lives. There were also the celebratory sacrifices meant to be shared with friends and family on joyous occasions.
One unusual sacrifice was the guilt-offering, which in essence was a very public, physical admission of guilt for a particular failing from a list of sins. We no longer have the sacrifices, but we still have the possibility, requirement and necessity to admit our guilt. In Hebrew, the term is “Vidui”. In English, the closest translation is “confession.” In Jewish law, the first requirement is to admit guilt to ourselves. Thereafter, Vidui is a regular fixture in our prayers to God. The Rabbis conveniently gave us an alphabetical menu of possible sins that are said daily. On Yom Kippur we have a much more extensive and detailed list of transgressions we confess to and request forgiveness for. Admission of guilt does not necessarily bestow forgiveness, but it is a necessary first step to any possible amends and healing.
While we don’t have the Christian tradition of the confessional, there is probably something healthy in admitting our failings to another trusted and understanding soul. The Baal Haturim on Leviticus 4:12 states that no one should be embarrassed to confess their sins, as even the High Priest himself is instructed to publicly bring his own guilt-offering. If that most holy man is capable of sinning and has the obligation to confess and repent, despite the shame, so too the rest of us mortals must have the courage to face our darker side and bring it to the light, in intelligent, healing and productive ways.
May we thereby dispel the demons of guilt that may haunt us and remove that weight from our shoulders, that cancer from our souls.
To my friend, the Archbishop of Montevideo, Daniel Sturla, on his recent appointment as Cardinal.