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Understanding the function of verbal confession in the teshuva process.
Beset by many evils and troubles, they will say, "It is because God is no longer with me that these evil things have befallen me." On that day I will utterly hide My face because of all the evil that they have done... (Deut. 31:17-18)
Maimonides says that this admission of guilt and regret is still not a full confession, and therefore God continues to hide His face. But the hiding is different: no longer is it a hiding of God's mercy, allowing evil to befall them, but rather a hiding of the ultimate redemption. That change in God's relationship contains a hint to their ultimate redemption when their repentance is complete.
To better understand this, we must first understand the function of verbal confession in the teshuva process. Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 364) offers two explanations of the benefit of verbal confession. First, verbalizing one's repentance creates the feeling of conversing with a second party, which, in turn, sensitizes a person to the reality of God's presence, God's awareness of his every deed, and the need to render an account before God. The greater a person's awareness that his sin was one in God's presence, with His full knowledge, the greater His shame and regret.
Secondly, verbal expression intensifies the process and leaves a more lasting effect.
In addition to regret over the past, teshuva also requires a commitment not to repeat the sin again. That commitment must be so decisive, resolute, and firm that God Himself can testify that at the moment of confession, the sinner does not contemplate ever committing that sin again. Just as a vow to do (or not to do) something in the future requires verbal expression, so, too, does the commitment not to repeat past sins.
Sefer Yerey'im specifies another dimension to verbal confession - supplication for atonement. There must be a clear recognition of the seriousness of the damage caused by the sin, both in terms of the damage to one's soul and one's relationship to God, and in terms of the effect on the world by closing the conduits of blessing. For this, one must entreat God to forgive, heal and repair the damage. Just as prayer and supplication must be verbalized to establish a feeling of communication, so, too must one's entreaty for atonement.
There is yet another aspect of confession that relates to the nature of sin itself. Sin, says the Maharal, is only incidental to the soul of the Jew. It cannot blemish the soul itself. Rather it superimposes layers of impurity that separate one from his essence. Since the Jew's connection to God is through that untainted essence, when he becomes distant from his essence, he also becomes estranged from God.
Teshuva, then, is the return of the Jew to his essence and the breakdown of the barriers that separate him from God. God does not leave the Jew when he sins; rather the Jew loses contact with God, Who still resides within the essence of his soul. As the Sages say on the verse, "I am asleep, but my heart is awake" (Song of Songs 5:2), "my heart" refers to God. Though the Jew sleeps and loses consciousness of God, God still occupies his heart.
By articulating his sin in the "Vidui" confession, the Jew makes it something external to himself. Then he is able to detach those layers of sin that have accreted on his soul. Vidui itself becomes an act of purification. Thus, Targum Yonasan translates the word "purify" in the verse "Before God should you purify yourself" (Leviticus 16:30), as "confess." The confession is itself the act of purification.
It is this last aspect of full Vidui which is lacking in the confession, "Because God is not with me, all these misfortunes have befallen me." Although this statement expresses regret, recognition of the devastation resulting from sin, and even hints to a commitment to avoid this state in the future, it is still lacking. There is no recognition that it is not God Who has deserted us, but we who have become detached from ourselves and therefore from God.
When a Jew feels God has abandoned him, says Sforno, he gives up hope, since he thinks that it is God Who must first return. But in truth it is man who has strayed from his essence, and he can find God where he originally left Him. Teshuva is thus literally redemption: "Return to Me, for I have redeemed you" (Isaiah 44:22). One redeems his untainted essence from the layers of sin and impurity that encrust it.
As long as we fail to comprehend this aspect of redemption, God continues to hide the face of redemption from us. When we appreciate all the aspects of Vidui, including that recognition that God remains where He always was, waiting for us to strip away the barriers, we can look forward to both personal and national redemption.