David Walk
David Walk

I did/didn’t do it

As I was growing up, most of my knowledge of the world came through the screen of my black and white television set. Therefore, when I heard the word ‘confession’ I didn’t think of tapping (Please, don’t pound, and disturb others!) my heart and declaring ‘I have sinned, I have transgressed’. I usually thought of someone jumping up in Perry Mason’s courtroom and yelling, ‘Yes, it was me! I did it! I killed him! I confess!’ It is remarkable that, at least according to my memory, every episode featured such a scene. Now, as our High Holiday season approaches, we are more concerned with the VIDUY, confession of ritual law, less murder.  However, according to this week’s Torah reading, that’s not how VIDUY’s necessarily are supposed to go. 

Our parsha has the famous declaration, ‘When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield—in the third year, the year of the tithe—and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, you shall declare before the Lord your God: ‘I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments: I have not eaten of it while in mourning, I have not cleared out any of it while I was unclean, and I have not deposited any of it with the dead. I have obeyed the Lord my God; I have done just as You commanded me (Devarim 26:12-14). 

This declaration is called VIDUI MA’ASEROT by our Sages (Mishneh Ma’aseh Sheni 5:10). It goes against our normal expectation of a confession, an admission of guilt. It is, instead, a proclamation of our innocence. 

I think that part of our confusion is based upon translation. The term VIDUY comes from the root l’HODOT, which means to acknowledge, but can actually mean to ‘thank’, as well. So, we make a mistake to marry the Hebrew term VIDUY to the English word ‘confess’, which means to admit guilt. That term comes from the Latin CONFITERI, which means to speak with, and is more associated with the Catholic idea of confessing to a priest.  

So, what can we learn about our High Holiday VIDUY from this protestation of innocence which we read every year just before Rosh Hashanah? The Rashbam suggests that declaring our behavior helps to encourage that behavior. Most people don’t have the CHUTZPA, to make false statements, but might silently not fulfill an obligation. So, declarations can push us toward proper behavior. 

The Seforno, on the other hand, puts the VIDUY into the realm of ‘confession’. He avers that the reality of giving tithes to the Leviyim is an admission of the sin of the Golden Calf, because the Leviyim, who didn’t participate in the sin, replaced the BECHORIM (first born) of each family at that point. Theoretically, each family should have its own spiritual guides or clergy. 

It’s Rav Kook’s approach, though, which really speaks to me. The great Rav explained that psychologically the twin aspects of VIDUY, acknowledging both good and bad, serve a critical need.  All too often we are focused on our sins and the need to repent and atone for them.  This can be very draining psychologically.  In order to achieve an appropriate balance, it is also necessary to recognize when ‘we get it right’.   We need to realize that our relationship with Hashem is based not only on atoning for what we have wrongfully done but also through performing the positive actions which define our lives. 

This is extremely important. If we only point out the negative and sinful, one could conclude, like the teens in West Side Story: We’re no good! We’re no good! We’re no earthly good! It’s absolutely necessary that we are aware of our spiritual successes, as well as our failures, because for some of us this negativity could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

As a teacher, it was heart-breaking to hear some middle schoolers tell me that they were failures, because that’s what they were told by parents and teachers. We know true failure takes much longer than 13 years. I almost broke into tears one time, when a seventh grader told me that no one had ever said anything complimentary to him. 

I once asked Rav Avraham Twerski OB”M what the correct proportion of compliments to criticisms should be. This saintly psychiatrist told me, ‘1,000 ‘atta boys’ for every criticism.’ I’m sure that I fell short of that mark, but, because of him, I tried very hard to do more building up than tearing down during my teaching career. 

So, please, during this TESHUVA season, try hard to remember what you got it right last year as well as what you got it wrong. A complete VIDUY must be the ‘whole truth, and nothing but the truth’, which includes our spiritual successes, too. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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