Truth alone can be totally abstract, an ideal that exists apart from the realities of daily life. But when we expose the details of our lives, both inner and outer, to the truth of Scripture and to the searching lamp of the Spirit, and speak the truth about what we see, we have something solid that makes a real difference in our lives. Through confession, truth is unleashed to do its work upon our souls. Confession, therefore, is one of the main practices of the Days of Awe, an essential part of the preparation for Yom Kippur. And confession, of course, is a keynote of all the services of Yom Kippur itself.
Rambam in his treatise on repentance, Hilkhot Teshuvah, cites the passage in Numbers above as the source of the positive commandment to confess our sins. Then he goes on to answer the question, “What is the confession?”
The sinner says, “Pray, O God, I have sinned, I have done iniquitously, trespassed before you and done such and such things; indeed, I am sorry and ashamed of my actions, and I will never return and do this act again.” (cited in Days of Awe by SY Agnon)
Another sage adds,
Just as a sacrifice without Teshuvah [repentance] is called an abomination—“The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination” (Prov. 21:27)—so a confession without the heart’s agreeing not to sin again is called an abomination. (Meil Shmuel in Days of Awe)
If we confess with the intention to sin no more, we’ll be ready to admit our sins not just to God, but also to another human being. We are ultimately accountable, of course, to God alone, but it’s easy to get super-pious and use that fact to hide or deny our faults. So, Yaakov tells us, “openly acknowledge your sins to one another, and pray for each other, so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). One of the best definitions of this open acknowledgement, ironically, comes from a non-religious source, the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: “We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves [and] admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
A searching and fearless moral inventory sounds tough enough, but to actually admit what you come up with in the inventory is tougher still, especially when you have to admit it to another human being. This practice might be helping lots of recovering alcoholics and addicts these days, but I suspect that it’s nearly lost among religious folk, even though it’s essential to spiritual and moral development.
So, this week, as we consider the middah of truth, and especially as we prepare for the Days of Awe, let’s be ready to speak the truth about our own condition to another human being. It might prove to be, as Yaakov writes, the key to our healing.