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High Holidays: Is There A Right Way To Do Teshuvah?
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The Rambam makes a very interesting analogy that I want to call to your attention. Here's what it says, and I'm quoting now from Chapter 2 in the Rambam, Paragraph 3. Kol hametodah bedevarim. Imagine. He says, "that someone would confess what he has done to the victim that he has offended. V’lo gomer belavo laazov, but he didn't accept to stop doing the thing that's wrong. He hasn't let go of the sin. Hare ezdom, what is this comparable to? Letovel v’sharetz biado, it is like going into a mikvah, and holding on to an insect that continues to make you impure. A mikvah would purify you; this dead insect touching is the thing that makes you tamei, that makes you impure, that the going to the mikvah doesn't do anything. So that's his analogy.
Now, if you think about that analogy, it is a fascinating analogy because it has so much to teach you about the meaning of Vidui, and it's connection to the other three elements of Teshuvah. Let's take a part of the analogy: what is an analogous to holding on to the insect?
Holding on to the wrong-doing, not committing yourself to abandon it in the future. So if I don't commit myself to abandon the crimes, I'm still holding on to the crime; I'm holding on to the thing that makes me tamei, to the thing that makes me impure. Let's say I would let go of the crime, let's say I'd let go of an insect. In the laws of Tumah and Taharah - in the laws of purity and impurity - if I let go of an insect that makes me Tamei, do I become Tahor? Do I become pure? The answer is no.
For that, you have to emerge yourself in the mikvah. When you go into this mikvah, and you're completely surrounded by the water, and you've let go of the insect, then you become pure. But when that happens, the purity that you experience is not a result of letting go of the insect. That just sets up a situation where you can go into the mikvah - the transformation happened from the mikvah. What is going into the mikvah analogous to?
According to the Rambam, Vidui - the act of confessing your sin, expressing what it is that you've done to the victim of your crime - that is analogous to going into the Mikvah. How do we make sense of this analogy? What is the Rambam telling us?
Let's take a step back and put it all together. Why are the first three elements of Teshuvah not enough? I think it goes back to the question of these elements not being interpersonal. The Rambam seems to argue that what Vidui adds is something transformative; something that actually repairs the relationship that was damaged. Every wrong damages relationship, either relationship between someone and God, or a relationship between someone and other people, or both. Something is hurt, some relationship is hurt with every wrong committed.
What the Rambam is telling us, when he says that, "If you decide to do Teshuvah, there's a right way to do Teshuvah, and a wrong way to do Teshuvah." Is that the right way in Teshuvah involves doing something interpersonal, involves rehabilitating relationship that was damaged. Getting the relationship between you and the one who you hurt rehabilitated again - that's the Mitzvah. The Mitzvah is, repair the damage.
You see, the other three elements of Teshuvah are not about repairing the damage in relationship with others. They are about just making you a better person. If I leave behind a sin in past, present and future - I no longer do it, I regret having done it, I'm not going to do it again - that's self-improvement. You want to make yourself a better person, go make yourself a better person. But if you decide that you want to do Teshuvah, there is a Mitzvah. The Mitzvah is: repair the relationship you damaged. Fix what it is that you broke, do Vidui.
Vidui doesn't work unless you do the other three things. It's like going into a Mikvah while you hold on to the insect. You'd have to let go of the wrong; you have to let go of the insect before you have a chance of transforming relationship. But after you've done that - after you've set yourself up to be able to rehabilitate your relationship - then go all the way and do it. Repair the relationship you damaged. How do you repair it? You repair it through Vidui.
How does Vidui work and in what sense is it like a Mikvah? For the answer to that question, we need to go to the Hebrew root of the word. Vidui means to confess what it is that you've done to a victim; to apologize, essentially, to the victim. But it comes from a particular Hebrew root. The letters yud, dalet, and hey. What other words come from that root? There's actually a very famous phrase that you all know, probably, that comes from that root todah and todah rabah; thank you.
It turns out that the Hebrew word for 'thank you' and the Hebrew word for 'I'm sorry' are actually the same words. They come from the same root. They're both acts of what we might call hodaah. So here's the great question: If there's one Hebrew phrase, hodaah, from the root yud, dalet, hey, that has two meanings in English - I'm sorry on the one hand, confession; and on the other hand, thank you. You've got to ask yourselves, why? Why does one Hebrew phrase have two English translations? It must be that those two words aren't actually two different things. There must be an essential commonality between saying you're sorry and saying thank you. They're really the same thing; they're both acts of hodaah.
If we can understand the core of hodaah, maybe we can get that magical Vidui. Let's come back at that later.
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