“Confessions of a Tzaddik”

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I have to confess, I’m great.

Certainly an unusual sentence, but no more jarring than the phrase Chazal use to describe the ceremony at the beginning of this week’s parshah. When offering ma’aser, a special formula is to be recited; this recitation is referred to by chazal with the term vidui ma’aser (see Sotah 32b; Megilah 20b).

This phrase seems out of place. Vidui is conventionally translated as confession, which in turn is commonly defined as “acknowledging sin or negative information”. However, from a reading of the verses, the sense that emerges is anything but: “I have removed the holy things from the house, and I have also given it to the Levite, to the proselyte, to the orphan, and to the widow, according to whatever commandment You commanded me; I have not transgressed any of your commandments, and I have not forgotten; I have not eaten of it in my intense mourning, I did not consume it in a state of contamination, and I did not give of it for the needs of the dead; I have hearkened to the voice of Hashem, my G-d; I have acted according to everything You commanded me” (26:13-14).

Is the word vidui, then, meant to be ironic, sarcasm from the rabbis?

To address this issue it is worth reexamining the idea of vidui. The Rambam, in beginning his codification of the laws of teshuvah, writes that if one violates any principle of the Torah, when he is ready to repent, it is a mitzvah for him to do “vidui”. This formulation troubled many commentators, in that it appears as if the Rambam, who devotes ten chapters of his yad to the laws of teshuvah, does not even recognize teshuvah as a mitzvah. Some indeed assumed this to be the case, that the Rambam understands only vidui to be a mitzvah, but not Teshuvah itself (see Minchas Chinuch, 364, and Avodas Melech).

Rav Soloveitchik, zatzal, considered this to be an impossible position; the assumption that teshuvah is an obligation is central to Torah as a whole (see Devarim 30:1-2) and especially to the Yamim Noraim period. The Rambam’s wording, then, reflects not that teshuvah is not obligatory, but that it is expressed through vidui. This is because teshuvah, in reality, is not an action that one can perform or not perform, but an internal mindset (see the beginning of R. Kook’s Oros HaTesuvah). A mitzvah must be directed at a performable action, not at a personality trait, emotion, or mindset. Vidui, then, as a defined action, is the stand-in for teshuvah, an action that can be commanded; and when it is performed, when one forces himself to confront his own sins and inadequacies, it is hoped that he will then be moved toward the internal change that is in itself teshuvah.

With this perspective, it may be possible to revisit the concept of vidui ma’aser. True, the vehicle to teshuvah is very frequently acknowledgment of misdeeds, the antidote to the arrogance, self-satisfaction or self-delusion that often stands in the way of change. However, there is another impediment to growth that can be equally pernicious.

Often, we are held back from changing because we believe, quite simply, that we are not capable of any better. Yes, we readily acknowledge our shortcomings; in fact, we are slow to see anything else, and recognize no possibility of greater heights. In that circumstance, traditional “confession” does little to move us toward spiritual growth. However, Chazal teach us that there is another form of the vehicle known as vidui: one that forces us to admit that there are times when we do fulfill commandments completely, when we are capable of accomplishing everything set before us; when we can declare “I have hearkened to the voice of Hashem, my G-d; I have acted according to everything You commanded me”.

If we are capable then, we are capable other times as well. The excuse that no better can be asked of us loses its strength. We are forced to recognize that the bar can be set higher. At times, it is this awareness that can be the greatest impetus toward growth; it is this function that vidui ma’aser provides.

As we approach Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we confess our sins and we hope the awareness of wrongdoing will prevent repeat offenses. But at the same time, we focus on our untapped potential as well, and we use that awareness to push us farther. It is our mission, at this time, to remove the influence of the Satan not only from “behind us”, but from “in front of us” as well.