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The Power of Confession

posted Oct 1, 2017, 11:08 PM by Heidi Hoover

Today is the holiest day of the year. It is our day of intense repentance and confession of what we have done in the past year. I wonder if we repent today because it is the holiest day of the year, or if it is the holiest day of the year because it is the day we repent. Maybe that’s kind of a “chicken and egg” question. Without being able to answer that question, here’s another: Why is repentance so important that it is paired with the holiest day of the year?

One place to start with that question is to think about what “holiness” is. When we talk about Shabbat or the Festivals, we contrast between “kodesh”—“holy,” and “chol”—“everyday.” Sometimes “kodesh and chol” are translated “sacred and profane.” “Profane” here doesn’t mean vulgar or bad, like profane language, it just means regular, perhaps earthy or coarse. It doesn’t mean that God isn’t there when we are in the everyday time, and that God is there in the holy time. But a separation is made between the two.

In the Torah, holiness is separation. “A holy people” is a people separate from other peoples. A holy place is a place separate from other places, where different rules of ritual purity apply. We can see holiness as times and places that are especially devoted to service to God, even though God is always present.

As I often do, I’d like to take a moment to address my use of the word “God.” There is no question that our Torah is talking about God as some kind of entity that is separate from us, that is responsible for the creation of the world, that is way more powerful than we are. Some parts of our Bible and our tradition believe that God rewards and punishes us for our behavior, and that theology has been pervasive through much of our tradition. At the same time, some parts of our Torah and tradition don’t uphold that theology, and some directly challenge it.

An issue for many of us today, which has not been an issue for much of our history, is about whether or not God actually exists. Before the Enlightenment, God’s existence was not really a question. (Though there was one sage in our Talmud who lost his faith in God—he was considered a heretic and referred to as “Acher,” the “Other one,” but not expunged from the Talmud, remarkably.) Today, whether or not God exists is a question, and there are also many different conceptions of God, if one does believe in God’s existence.

For the purposes of today, I will speak of God and closeness to God, and when I do so, what I mean for myself is that there is something greater than us that wants me to be my best self, that wants to support and nurture me and help me be strong. If you believe in that too, or would like to, great. If you don’t, I encourage you to translate for yourself the word “God” into whatever it is that makes you want to be your best self, and that supports and nurtures you and helps you be strong.

OK. So holiness is times and places especially devoted to God. And the holiest of those times is this day, Yom Kippur, the day when we repent. I ask again: Why do these two things go together—the holiest day and repentence? I’m going to suggest three possibilities.

The first reason that we do our greatest repentance on the holiest day of the year is that repentance is really, really hard. Honest self-evaluation means that we have to be open to everything we normally shut out. For many of us, it means we have to learn to see what we’ve hidden from ourselves for so long that it only exists as shadows on our psyche, or as glimpses from the corner of our eye. Being strong and brave enough, and honest enough, to turn and look at what we hide about ourselves from everyone, is really, really difficult.

Admitting to ourselves and others the ways we have failed is really hard. Every year, or nearly every year, there is a point in the high holiday services when I say to all of you that if I’ve hurt you in the past year, please tell me and give me a chance to make amends. Every year I’m surprised at how hard and scary it is for me to say those words, even though—or perhaps because—I mean them wholeheartedly. I really do want to know, and also it’s hard for me to hear.

Just a few days ago I reached out to a friend to wish him and his family a good new year. We were not in touch for the last couple of months, but that’s not unusual in our friendship. I discovered that the last time we saw each other I hurt him, unintentionally and without realizing it, and he thought I hadn’t been in touch because I was upset with him, which I was not. I’m glad I reached out and he gave me the opportunity to ask him to forgive me, which he did. It was hard, though in the end, good.

For many of us, too, it is easy to overlook the ways in which we have done good, and I mean that in the grammatically correct sense of having done something morally good. It is also easy, sometimes, to overlook the ways in which we have done well, and to only beat ourselves up for when we have not done well. When that is our situation, it can be just as hard to recognize our strengths as our failings.

Some of us blame ourselves or accept blame for what we do not control, or for what others have done. This can be easier than recognizing our lack of control, or facing the true nature of a relationship in which another person wants to blame us for what was not our fault. But this is not clarity about how things happened.

For a lot of us, our past year included a combination of ignoring or hiding our wrongdoings and overlooking or undervaluing some or many of our achievements. It is the job of each one of us to try to achieve clarity and see our works as they are, giving weight to them as is warranted. This is hard to do just generally, because we’re always subjective and it’s so hard to see clearly from within our own situations. It is also hard because it means facing things we don’t like to face—or even have not been able to face.

On this holiest day of the year, our service to God is to see our lives, our failings and accomplishments, as honestly and clearly as we can. That is what God wants from us today, so we put everything else aside to try to do this very hard work for God. For many of us, if we feel we’re doing it for someone besides ourselves, it might be a tiny bit easier. And if you resonated with that last sentence, if it’s easier to be honest with yourself because someone else wants that from you, your job for this year is to learn that God is inside you, and you are worth enough to be honest with yourself for yourself, not just for someone else.

We repent on the holiest day of the year because being fully honest with ourselves about our failures and our successes is really, really hard, and we need the support of God and our community to do it.

The second reason I believe repentance and the holiest day of the year go together is because Yom Kippur is a simulation of a near-death experience. When people come close to death—in a near-fatal car accident, or in an armed robbery, or in a natural disaster—we sometimes hear them speak about how they’ve realized what’s really important in life. When they speak about this, they don’t talk about how they’ve realized that accumulating wealth or power is what’s most important. They talk about relationships.

Moses, in the book of Exodus, after the episode of the Golden Calf, when he had to talk God down from destroying the Israelites, asked to see God. I think that after that traumatic experience, Moses needed as much closeness to God as he could get. God said, “No one can see my face and live,” but allowed Moses to see God’s back—whatever that means with a non-corporeal God. One of my teachers pointed out that if we can’t see God’s face and live, that means we will see God’s face at the moment of death.

We can’t see God’s face while we’re alive, but in a near-death experience, perhaps we see God’s back. At Yom Kippur, we come as close to death as we can while staying alive. That means we come as close to seeing God as we can while staying alive, so it makes sense that this would be the holiest day of the year. When we come as close to seeing God—to dying—as possible we can understand what is really important in our lives—our relationships with our loved ones—and that leads us to the desire to repent and repair damage to those relationships.

An important note is that here I am NOT talking about relationships that have ended because of abuse or other situations that require the ending of relationships for the health of one or both persons. This is about relationships that are troubled for the normal, everyday reasons that sometimes mar any relationship.

The third reason our day of repentance happens on the holiest day of the year is because the way we repent is by confessing what we’ve done that we regret, and confession is incredibly powerful.

In the book of Genesis, there is a story of one of Jacob’s sons, Judah, whose son marries a woman named Tamar. The son dies, and the law of leverate marriage says that if a man dies without an heir, his widow should marry his brother. So Tamar marries Judah’s next son, and he dies too. By now Judah feels like she’s not so good for his sons, and anyway his third son is underage, so he doesn’t allow Tamar to marry that son. The third son grows up and Judah still doesn’t offer to have Tamar marry him. She takes matters into her own hands, disguises herself as a prostitute and sits by the road where Judah will pass. Judah sees her, “turns aside,” and does the deed with her. He doesn’t have his wallet on him, so he leaves his ID with her to promise that he’ll send payment. When he sends a goat to pay for the encounter, the “prostitute” is nowhere to be found. “Where is the prostitute who hangs out here?” he asks, and is told, “There is no prostitute who hangs out here.” This is confusing for him, but he dismisses it. A while later, his widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar, turns up pregnant. His neighbors, always willing to help out, tell him about this and everyone is getting ready to execute her for adultery when she holds out Judah’s ID to him and says, “Do you recognize this?” He does, and he admits it. He recognizes that it was his duty to give his third son to Tamar to marry, and he confesses, “You are the one who did right here, not I.”

The rabbis of our midrash recognize the power of Judah’s admitting that Tamar was right and he was wrong. They connect this story to another son of Jacob, Jacob’s oldest son Reuben. Reuben has an affair with Bilhah, one of his father’s wives (NOT his mom). Though it is not recorded in the Torah, our sages say that Judah’s confession inspires his brother Reuben to confess what he did, too.

Have you ever experienced this phenomenon, that when one person has the courage to confess, it gives others the courage to confess as well? Have you ever held things inside you, things you felt bad about and consequently didn’t tell, and felt that you were the only one doing that? Then there came a time, perhaps in a group of friends, when you confessed this thing you were ashamed of. And everyone else in the group, rather than being shocked and apalled, immediately said, “Me too!” I have experienced this again and again with other parents. Not only do you get something off your chest, you find out you aren’t alone, that it’s more forgivable than you thought, and you’ve given others the gift of finding out the same things.

That isn’t all there is in the power of confession, though. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, a well-known Chasidic Rebbe, wrote: “The sins of a human being are upon his bones, as it is written (Ezekiel 32): ‘And their sin is [engraved] upon their bones.’ Every sin has a particular combination of letters which are then engraved, in malign combination, on the sinner’s bones—thus bringing the particular language of that prohibition into the realm of impurity, where it takes revenge upon him…. Through verbal confession these engraved letters leave his bones and compose the words of confession. For language issues from the bones, as it is written, ‘All my bones shall say….” (Psalm 35). And confession destroys the structure of the malign combination of letters, and reconstructs them into benign combination, creating the realm of holiness” (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers, pp. 56-57).

Obviously this is metaphor, and our sins are not literally etched on our bones. But imagine that idea. Our sins being etched on our bones would weaken our bones. And doesn’t it feel true that when we carry around guilt over various actions that we regret that that guilt saps our energy and weakens us? Almost as if the guilt is carving away at our bones. Rebbe Nachman says we can remove the destructive power of that guilt from our psyches and our bodies by confessing it out loud. Not only does that remove the damage from ourselves, but amazingly, it creates the realm of holiness!

Confession, which we do again and again on this holiest day of the year, has the power to take the guilt that is damaging us and transform it into holiness.

To me, the way that works is that when we say out loud what we’re ashamed of, what we’ve done wrong, we find most of the time that it’s not as bad as it felt inside us, that many others share that same shame inside themselves, and its power to damage us and bring us down wanes. This leaves us with more love for ourselves, and therefore with more love for others. And our confession has empowered others to confess, which has had the same affect on them as it has on us, and the ability to love multiplies.

There is nothing that brings us closer to God than an increased ability to love. So confession, when we do it bravely and honestly, has the incredible power to bring about both healing and greater holiness.

Repentance through confession on this day makes it possible for this to be the day on which we’re closest to God, therefore making it the holiest day of the year.

On this Yom Kippur, may the holiness of this day help us feel supported and strengthened so we can honestly assess our past year and do the hard work of repentance. May the simulated near-death experience of Yom Kippur help us see what is most important in our lives—our relationships—and inspire us to work to make them healthier. May we harness the power of confession to release the guilt that hurts us, and empower others to confess and become more free and healthier also. Amen and g’mar chatimah tovah—may you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year to come. 

Yom Kippur morning service—sermon begins at 55:00: