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VIDUI | The positives of a negative attitude

Tishrei 5780 | October 2019
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A major component of Yom Kippur services is vidui, confession:

The sages said: … and even though they confessed before eating and drinking (the Seudat Mafseket), they confess after eating and drinking lest some corruption happened during the meal. And even though they confessed during Maariv they should confess during Shacharit, (and though they confessed) Shacharit they should confess during Mussaf, they confessed in Mussaf – they should confess in Mincha, they confessed in Mincha – they should confess in Neila. (TB Tractate Yoma 87b)

This seems like a lot of confession. Not only are we supposed to verbally acknowledge our sins from the previous year, the Shulchan Aruch rules that, although not strictly necessary, one should also confess sins committed prior to the previous year, even if they have already confessed them and have not repeated that sin.

Why is vidui such a central part of Yom Kippur prayers? In the Laws of Repentance (1:1) Rambam states:

If a person transgresses any commandment in the Torah – be it positive or negative, purposefully or accidentally – when that person does teshuva (return, repentance) and returns from their sin they must confess before God, blessed be He, as it says, “A man or women when they do … and they shall confess their sins that they did.” And this is a verbal confession, which is a positive commandment.

Rambam not only views vidui, confession, as an essential part of teshuva, he views it as the action that fulfills the Torah commandment of teshuva. Without vidui, there is no teshuva. This is not to say that vidui is the most important aspect to teshuva. Vidui is not like Catholic confession, where one enumerates their sins, then is given some sort of penance and absolved of wrongdoing. Rather, vidui is one step on the path to teshuva, which includes – regret, leaving the behavior behind, vidui, and accepting it upon oneself to change one’s ways in the future. And in interpersonal sins there is a vital, additional step of asking and receiving forgiveness from the wronged party.

What exactly does this vidui entail? Based on the Gemara, Rambam brings the text of vidui:

How does one confess? He states: “Please, God, I sinned, I strayed, I transgressed before you, I have done such and such. Behold, I regret and am ashamed by my actions. I promise never to return to this matter again.”

Though disputed in the Gemara (TB Tractate Yoma 86b), Shulchan Aruch rules that it’s appropriate to enumerate and specify one’s sins during silent prayers. So, for centuries Jews have stood in services on Yom Kippur and recited a litany of their mistakes in the order of the Hebrew alphabet, often personalizing the list in painstaking detail during their silent prayers as they come face to face with their mistakes.

Recently, there’s been a growing trend of an alternative vidui, one that speaks of all the positive actions we have done throughout the year: “Ahavti, I have loved, berachti, I have blessed…” At first glance this may seem to have little do with the ancient Jewish practice of vidui, and instead be viewed as a bow to a cultural zeitgeist that is uncomfortable with so much blame and shame; perhaps it is a nod to the strength-based approach in positive psychology which seeks to empower individuals and communities to lead fuller lives through focusing on strengths as opposed to weaknesses. Yet this idea is not a new one. The only text of vidui in the Torah is a positive one, that of vidui maasrot (acknowledgment of tithing) which states “I have eradicated the sanctified in my house, and also given to the Levite and stranger, orphan and widow, in accordance with Your command…” In this case our vidui, more aptly translated as acknowledgment, is for performing a mitzva scrupulously. It does not seem that this passage is recited in order to boast, but rather to heighten our awareness and add an extra level of accountability for our actions in order to strengthen our observance, similar to the vidui recited on Yom Kippur. Long before the ideas of positive psychology Rav Kook taught:

“A person must also verbally rejoice in the good deed they have done … therefore we must occasionally say vidui on positive commandments, to strengthen our hearts to the path of God, just as we must confess our sins.” (Ein Aya, Massechet Brachot II, Maaser Sheni 15)

While there is room for a positive vidui on Yom Kippur it is vital to note that it should not replace the acknowledgment of our wrongdoings; rather it should serve as a complement. There is an erroneous idea that religion thrives on shame and guilt, and that these are unhealthy emotions that have no purpose in an enlightened society. It is true that in certain circumstances, shame can have a toxic effect on one’s sense of self. And while vidui does not have to be about shame alone, the regret that precedes vidui often involves a sense of shame. Yet not all shame is bad. Shame is a natural reaction after we have done something wrong, which may be why Adam and Chava’s first instinct after they sinned is to try and hide from God. When that didn’t work they each tried to shift the blame – Adam to Chava and Chava to the snake. This is something many tend to do. For most people, shame is an uncomfortable emotion. By shifting the blame we can absolve ourselves of wrongdoing and alleviate our sense of shame. But that shift in responsibility will not help us avoid those behaviors in the future, nor will it allow us to properly apologize to the party we have wronged.

Similarly, acknowledging our weaknesses and mistakes allows us to take ownership of our actions. By detailing what we did wrong we can identify the circumstances and prevent it from happening again in the future. Vidui helps us acknowledge that our behavior, for good or for bad, is within our control. Only when we do so can we leave the problematic behaviors behind and focus on the positive actions that will return us to a closer relationship with our Creator.

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.