How To Do Teshuvah?

Why Do We Need To Confess Our Sins?

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

Teshuvah, or repentance, is a personal and emotional process. Laws are impersonal; they are objective and unbiased. The law doesn’t care about personal feeling. But, nevertheless, Judaism has many laws for our steps to repentance. How can there be laws for something so intrinsically personal?

In this video, the first of the course, Rabbi Fohrman presents the essential question regarding repentance that will guide the rest of the course: Can there really be a “right” and “wrong” way to repent?

Discover other great Rosh Hashanah videos at Aleph Beta, including ‘How To Prepare For Rosh Hashanah”, “The Two Trees In The Garden Of Eden”. and “Akeidah: The Story Of Abraham & Isaac


So here's a problem I want to share with you. An actual law (you can find this codified in standard books of Halacha, like the Aruch HaShulchan) that you're supposed to be standing on Yom Kippur when you say the vidui prayer.

Hilchot Teshuvah: Laws for Our Steps to Repentance

The vidui prayer is that prayer in which we strike our chest and say, "al chet shechetenu lefanecha", we confess various sins that we've done over the year. And the idea is that you're supposed to be standing while you say that prayer, and then the halacha continues by saying, "You're not really supposed to be leaning."

And some go as far as to suggest what the definition of leaning is.

It is considered leaning if that which you are leaning on, were it suddenly pulled out from under you, you'd fall. Now, it's one thing to come across a halacha like this in the abstract, and to see it written in a book. But let's actually imagine what this halacha looks like in real life:

So here it is, it's Yom Kippur. "Al chet", vidui, this prayer of confession, it's one of the most intensely personal prayers of the year. Imagine yourself really doing this right. Imagine there you are in shul, your eyes are closed, you've been really thinking about your year, evaluating yourself very seriously, you found painful, searing mistakes in the past, tears streaming down your cheeks, as Shmoneh Esrei draws to a close you have that sense of catharsis: "Things are going to be different going forward."

You felt like for the first time in years, Yom Kippur's really been meaningful, transformative.

And then, as you begin to take your three steps backwards, you realize, "Oh my Gosh! I've been leaning!"

You've been leaning! So what?

So now let's just try to understand. Does this mean that this whole thing doesn't count? I mean, this whole half hour, this transformation, none of it matters? You just have to do it over again? How could that even be? How do you understand this?

How Can There Be Hilchot Teshuvah?

The question I want to pose to you is really larger than this. This is just an example of almost an oxymoron that we call "Hilchot Teshuvah". "Laws of Teshuvah"? The very term just seems entirely self-contradictory. Law is the most objective thing that you can imagine. Law is 'we don't care what you feel, this is the law.' It doesn't really matter what's going on with your inner emotional world.

So that's law, but Teshuvah is about the inner emotional world. There's nothing more spiritual, more personal than the process of return and repentance; of change. How could Teshuvah, of all processes within Judaism, be regulated by law? Laws of Teshuvah, such a strange idea! But laws of Teshuvah there are.

Here's another law: When you say Vidui, you are supposed to say it out loud. And you can ask "Why? Who am I taking to in Shmoneh Esrei when I'm saying Vidui? I'm talking to God. Well, if God's all-powerful, can't He read my thoughts? Imagine I have these very, very deep, personal, spiritual thoughts – it doesn't count? God knows what I'm thinking, why doesn't this count?

These two issues – leaning during Vidui, saying it out loud – they're just two possible examples. But the whole idea of Hilchot Teshuvah - Laws of teshuvah - again, sounds strange. If you open up the Rambam, Maimonides, there's a whole section of his code of Jewish law that's devoted to Hilchot Teshuvah.

What I want to do with you over this series of videos is to actually look carefully at Rambam's Hilchot Teshuvah. I think that if we jump in and actually see what's written there, we will find that contrary to what we might have believed, there are right ways of doing Teshuvah, and wrong ways of doing it.

There are pitfalls in the process of Teshuvah that are subtle, that can actually make the process destructive – destructive for you, destructive for those around you.

Teshuvah is not just amorphous. It's not whatever it is you want it to be. There's a real path here, there's something to achieve, and there's a way to achieve it. If you look carefully at Hilchot Teshuvah, we'll actually discover that path. Jump in with me, let's take a look.

Rambam's Mishneh Torah on Hilchot Teshuvah

I want to begin by asking us to consider a question. The legal structure of the Torah is defined by 613 commandments; there's a lot of commandments. Now, of all those commandments, I want to ask you this: do you think that there's a command to do Teshuvah? If a person has sinned, has committed some sort of wrong, is this one of the commands of the Torah, to actually go and repent for your wrongdoing?

You know, on the one hand, you might argue that Teshuvah's very fundamental; it's a very important thing, that there's got to be a command for it. On the other hand, if you think about it, there's a problem with the very notion of there being a Mitzvah to do Teshuvah.

I'll come back to that problem in a moment. Before I do, let's actually jump in and read the Rambam and see what the Rambam has to say about this.

“Kol mitzvot shebeTorah – all commands in the Torah – bein aseh bein lo taaseh – whether we are talking about a positive command or a negative command, an imperative to do something or an admonition not to do it – im aver adam al achat mehen – if somebody actually transgressed one of these commands – bein bezadon bein beshegegah – whether you did it on purpose or did it by accident – k’shyaaseh teshuvah v'yashuv mecheto – when he repents, when he does Teshuvah – chayav lehitvadot lifanei haKel Baruch Hu – he is obligated to confess what it is that he has done before the Almighty. Vidui zeh mitzvat aseh, this act of Vidui, this confession, is, in fact, a positive command.”

And then he goes and he talks about exactly what is the language that one uses to perform Vidui to confess in this way, and he goes and defines that language, but let's come back to just these first few lines that we talked about before. Just listening to them, does it seem to you like the Rambam treats Teshuvah – the act of repentance – as a Mitzvah in the Torah?

So on the one hand, the Rambam certainly defines something here as a Mitzvah, right? The interesting thing is though, that he doesn't actually define Teshuvah itself as a Mitzvah. He defines an element of Teshuvah as a Mitzvah, and that element is called Vidui – confession.

Maimonides' Definition of Teshuvah

Rambam is actually going to later set out the different elements of Teshuvah:

  • There's azivat hachet, letting go of the sin;
  • there's kabalah laatid, deciding you are not going to do it in the future;
  • there's chartah, the 'feeling bad for what you've done';
  • and there's vidui, and there's confession.

These are four different elements. Strangely, the Rambam focuses on one of them, and says that one thing, Vidui, confession is one of the 613 commandments.

So, it seems strange. Why is he doing that? Why is he picking out one element of Teshuvah and only one element of Teshuvah, and saying that's the Mitzvah? What about all the other elements? What about Teshuvah as a whole? How do we make sense of this?

So, I want to suggest a theory to you, and the theory is this. Let's come back to the question I asked: Is Teshuvah a Mitzvah? And this time, instead of examining it from the perspective of the Rambam, let's just examine it from the perspective of logic.

Rationally speaking, do you see any difficulty in the notion that one of the commandments in the Torah should be to repent, seek forgiveness, and change one's ways from one's wrongdoing?

What Is the Meaning Behind Teshuvah Law?

So, on the one hand, you might say, "Sure! What a great Mitzvah; very spiritual, very wonderful." But I can raise an objection to that: Under what conditions would such a mitzvah apply? The act of Teshuvah, the act of repentance, by definition, only takes place in the wake of a transgression. It takes place after you've disregarded one of the other Mitzvahs of the Torah.

Think about the word: Teshuvah literally means 'return'. It's the act of turning around, and if you are transgressing, you're going one direction away from the Torah's commands.

Can there be a Mitzvah to turn around? Logically, it doesn't make sense that there could be. How can I command you to turn around? I can't command you to stop disregarding the command, so the notion that there's a Mitzvah to do Teshuvah is itself problematic. And, the Rambam never says there is such a Mitzvah.

The theory I want to suggest to you is that Teshuvah actually a choice! It's a choice that we make, it can't be commanded. It's something you just have to decide you want to do. What the Rambam is saying is, if you decide you want to engage in an act of Teshuvah, at that point, the Torah defines for you a right way of doing Teshuvah, and a wrong way of doing Teshuvah.

The Mitzvah is: if you're going to do Teshuvah, do it the right way. And the Rambam says, "What does doing it the right way mean? It means, including Vidui, confession."

Why does the Rambam say that that one piece of Teshuvah is the Mitzvah? Why not any of the other pieces of Teshuvah? That is a very interesting question, and that will require us to take a deeper look at the four elements of Teshuvah, and Vidui's place within them.

When we do this, I think we're going to discover that laws of Teshuvah are not technicalities that get in the way of our inner emotional experience; but they are beacons that help guide us in the productive path, to transform some of our most important relationships.

Let's come back and take a look.

The Four Stages of Repentance

Okay, so what are these four elements of Teshuvah according to the Rambam? How is it that he defines them? Let's take a quick look, and as we do, I want you to play a little game with me.

This is a game I learned a long time ago; the game that comes from Sesame Street, and it's called 'Which one of these things is not like the other?' There are four boxes up on the screen. Three of the things kind of fit together, one of them doesn't fit together. So we are going to play this game and you need to figure out which one of these things doesn't fit, and you've got to define why it is that it doesn't fit with the other three.

Here are the four things, and I'm reading now from the second paragraph of the first chapter of the Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah:

“Mah hi teshuvah – so what is Teshuvah?” Rambam says it has the following elements in it: “Hu shyazov hachoteh cheto – on the one hand, it requires that the one who transgressed has to leave behind the wrongdoing. He can't be doing the wrong thing anymore. And as part of that, I am going to suggest – yasiro memachsavto – he has to get rid of it in his mind. It's not just that he has to stop doing it, but he can't be continually preoccupied about doing it.

V’yigmor belibo shelo yaaseho od – he has to accept in his heart that he is not going to do it again. He has to make a commitment to the future that he is not going to be doing this thing.

V’chen yitnechem al sheavar – and he also needs to regret that which he has done in the past.”

And here's the fourth element: “V’tzarich lehitvadot besfatav ulomer inyanot elu shegamar belibo – he needs to confess out loud what it is that he has done to whomever it is that he has offended.”

Okay, so these are the four elements of Teshuvah:

  • azivat hachet, leaving behind the wrongdoing;
  • kabalah laatid, deciding you are not going to do it again;
  • yitnechem al sheavar, regret;
  • and finally, vidui, articulating what you've done out loud and confessing it to the one you've offended.

Okay, so take a moment and ask yourself: which one of these four things seems fundamentally different than the other three?

Okay, so if you said that the vidui is the one that didn't fit, then I am totally on your side. It's different because vidui is actually the only interpersonal element in this whole list. Everything else can be done by you yourself, sitting in a dark room.

The only thing that actually involves someone else is confession; is acknowledging what you've done to the one you did it to. You can't do that yourself in a dark room. (You actually could if the only one that you've offended is God: If you didn't eat Kosher, then you can confess in a dark room, but you're still not just confessing alone. You're saying it out loud to Him. If on the other hand, you're confessing to a person that you've actually sinned to, then you've got to talk to that person. It is by its nature, interpersonal.

So, we'll come back to Vidui and analyze it a little bit more. But for the time being, it's kind of interesting that this one element of the four that doesn't seem to fit, happens to actually be the only element of Teshuvah that the Rambam defines as one of the 613 Mitzvot. In order to understand that, we need to take a little bit of a deeper look at the other three.

What Do the Steps to Repentance Mean?

I want to ask you another question here now: what's the common thread in these ideas?

So, let's go through these ideas again:

  • Azivat hachet, stopping to do the thing that's wrong;
  • kabalah laatid, accepting not to do it again;
  • charatah, regret for having done it.

Okay, an easy way, perhaps, of getting at what is the commonality in these three things might be to take a quick look at what the difference between each one of these three things are. And what I want to suggest to you is that they are kind of different in terms of time.

Think about the time frame associated with each of them. When I think of, for example, stopping to do the thing that's wrong, does that take place in the past? Does it take place in the present? Or, does it take place in the future? When do you stop doing something wrong? Well, that's in the present; you stop doing it now.

What about kabalah la'atid, accepting not to do it again? That of course, relates to the future. I'm not going to do it again in the future. And what about charatah? Well, regret, of course, that has to do with the past. I regret what I did in the past.

Isn't it kind of interesting? That these three elements relate to three time frames: past, present and future. Which leads to the very intriguing idea that maybe they're actually the same thing. The only thing that divides them is time frame. Maybe azivat hachet, kabalah la'atid, and charatah are all actually the same thing.

If we talk about a title for the paragraph, it's very easy to come up with a title. It's just this one idea; the only difference between these three things is 'what time frame you are doing it in.' If you do it in the past, we call it regret. When you do it in the present, we call it 'leaving the sin behind.' When you do it in the future, we call it 'accepting not to do it again.'

And now the great question is, what is this thing that's common to all of them? Let 'X' be the idea that's common to all of these once you strip away time. What is 'X'?

What I want to suggest is, the best title for this paragraph might actually be one of these elements itself, which is azivat hachet, leaving behind a wrongdoing. It's almost like, what it means to distance oneself from a wrong that one has committed, means distancing oneself in the present, distancing oneself in the future and distancing oneself in the past.

When I distance myself in the present, we call it 'leaving behind the sin, no longer doing what's wrong.' When I distance myself in the future, we call it 'accepting not to do it again.' And when I distance myself in the past, we call it 'regret.'

And now, why do I need to be so fancy? Why do I have to have all these elements of past, present and future? It's a very good question; I'm going to theorize here:

How to Repent for Our Sins

We live in all three of these worlds simultaneously. You may not think that's true; you may think, "Well, I live in the present now. I take one day at a time. When the future comes, that's the future. When the past comes, that was the past. But I just live in the present."

But I think the notion that we live in the present is in fact a kind of illusion. Even now in the present, we also kind of live in the future. We anticipate the future, and we reflect upon the past, and that affects our present too.

Think about life for a moment without these elements; without memory, without anticipation of the future, locked in this eternal present – it doesn't even feel like you're being human. It's part of what it means to live in the present, to live with memory, to live with anticipation of the future.

Maybe then, if that's what it means to be human, to live in all three of these states, then to really leave behind a wrong also has to relate to all these different states.

When you do all those three things, you've actually cut your ties to the wrong; I'm no longer connected to it now because I'm not doing it. I'm not connected to it in the past because I regret it. And I'm not connected to it in the future either, because I've committed not to do it.

When you do these three things, then as a human being who lives in a present, enriched by the memories of the past and anticipation of the future, you've left behind the wrong.

Okay, so now I have a challenge that I want you to think about. So much for the three elements of Teshuvah that are really one, leaving behind a wrong. What more could you ask of me? But the Rambam says, "I haven't even gotten started yet."

Vidui – articulating what you’ve done, confessing it to the one that you've offended – that is the Mitzvah of Teshuvah. "What does the Rambam mean? I'm such a good guy, I've left behind the sin. According to the Rambam, I haven't really done anything."

Why? What is it that Vidui adds to the mix that's not already there? Why is it so crucial?

Confession and Repentance

Okay, so let's look at the Vidui element. What exactly does Vidui add? We mentioned before that Vidui is the only interpersonal element in this mix. I want to expand on that.

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.

“Kol hamitvadeh bedevarim” – imagine, he says, “that someone would confess what he has done to the victim that he has offended. V’lo gomer belibo la’azov – but he didn't accept to stop doing the thing that's wrong. He hasn't let go of the sin. Hare zeh domeh – what is this comparable to? Letovel v’sheretz b’yado – 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  –it 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 its connection to the other three elements of Teshuvah.

Let's take apart of the analogy: what is 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 immerse 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 happens in 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?

Understanding Maimonides' Laws of Repentance

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 a relationship, either a 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 to do Teshuvah involves doing something interpersonal, it involves rehabilitating the 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 through 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 have to let go of the wrong; you have to let go of the insect before you have a chance of transforming a 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.

The Meaning of 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" , as in "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 "hoda'ah".

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 yourself 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 hoda'ah.

If we can understand the core of hoda'ah, maybe we can get at the magic of Vidui.

Repairing Relationships

Okay, so we have this riddle. There seems to be this connection point between these two concepts: 'thanks' on the one hand, 'apologies' on the other hand. How are these two things one concept?

One way that you can get at the essence of the concept is to try talking about the concept without using the word. So, I might say to you, "Well, how do you say 'thank you' without actually saying 'thank you'?" We might also try the flip side of this, which would be: how do you say 'I'm sorry' without actually using those words 'I'm sorry' or 'I apologize'? And I think the word that comes to most of our minds is 'I appreciate what you've done.'

The word appreciate has different meanings if you look it up in the dictionary, but they all revolve around the concept of value. 'To appreciate' something is 'to recognize the value' of it.

At its core, saying 'thanks' is an act of recognition; it is to recognize the value of what it is that someone did for you. It is essentially an act of acknowledgement. 'I'm sorry' is also an act of acknowledgement; it's a recognition of what I did to hurt you.

Both 'thanks' and 'apology' are a kind of recognition, but not just any old kind of recognition – recognition of a kind of imbalance that has come into a relationship.

You can view any relationship as a kind of balance. If I don't know you and you don't know me and we start a relationship together, so our relationship is in balance and relationships crave balance.

Everyone hates it when they are inimbalanced relationships. They can get imbalanced even in nice ways, and of course, they can get imbalanced in not nice ways, too.

Let's talk about nice ways a relationship can get imbalanced. You do me a favor; I move in next door, and you come over and you bring me food and you help my kids with their homework and you introduce them to other people in the block. How do I feel? I am so happy, you have given me this wonderful gift.

So right now, our relationship is sort of out of balance. You're up there, you gave me this gift. And I feel like I'm down here, and what do I want to do? I want to reciprocate; I want to give something back to you. Because that's going to restore balance in our relationship.

And there's nasty ways for our relationship to get unbalanced. What if I do something terrible to you, that has lasting ramifications on your life? I've hurt you, I've damaged your reputation; how do you feel? You're angry, there's a desire for revenge.

What is revenge? It's tit for tat; and that's why revenge is sweet. Because I have balance again.

So the question is, is there another way to bring balance back into relationships without reciprocating? What if you can't reciprocate? What if you've done this incredible favor for me when you save my life and I have no way to really reciprocate that? What do you do then? How can two sides bring back balance to the relationship without reciprocation?

And this is where the magic of hoda'ah comes in.

Confession as the Core of Repentance Law

The act of hodaah is the way you can bring balance back into a relationship, without reciprocating. And how do you do it? You do it through recognition.

When I look you in the eye and I say 'thank you' – what does 'thank you' mean? Let's get to the other word for 'thank you'. I say, "I appreciate what you've done, I recognize what you've done," – it's paradoxical, it's crazy! It doesn't even seem like it would make sense. You're actually looking the imbalance in the eye and recognizing it in the presence of the other person. And that somehow makes the imbalance go away, when the other person accepts that recognition. So if I say 'thank you' and you say 'you're welcome,' we can go on again in our relationship. We're back in balance.

It's crazy! This shouldn’t even work. How can you make an imbalance go away because you've recognized it? But that's how human relationships work. Which, by the way, is why it is so hard to apologize? Because here you are worried; you're thinking, "The only way I can possibly make this relationship better is to sweep the problem under the rug, not talk about it. Then maybe the imbalance will go away."

But that's not how you get dissonance to go away. You get it to go away by showing that you understand. I can say, "I did this. I feel terrible about this, and I understand what it is that I've done. I am sorry, because I understand." That kind of recognition heals a relationship, and that is the soul of Vidui. Vidui heals our relationships.

These relationships can get out of balance. What are you going to do? Say you're never going to accept a favor from somebody, because you can't accept the imbalance? Or, that the only way you are going to bring back balance is by taking revenge? You"ll destroy everything! Hoda'ah is required – that's the only way to make it work over the long term.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski used to say that the only three things you really need to know in a marriage are these: 'thank you', 'I'm sorry' and 'I admire you.' These are actually the three faces of hoda'ah.

In Hebrew, you use the word "hoda'ah" for all three of these things. They're ways of coming to grips with imbalance. Looking in the other in the eye and saying, "I understand”, and being able to go on.

Going back to the Rambam, isn't it interesting that there are four elements of Teshuvah, but only one of them is the Mitzvah? The Mitzvah part of Teshuvah is Vidui. Stand back and ask yourself, "What are the implications of that?"

The Meaning of Teshuvah

Well, let's start with the other three parts of Teshuvah aside from Vidui. As we said before, they're really about one thing – 'leaving behind a sin'. But leaving behind a sin is something that I do intrapersonally. It's something I do myself at home, in my own mind. That just sets up the Mitzvah. The Mitzvah is interpersonal – it's something that I can only do with you. The Mitzvah is 'bring balance back into the relationship.'

Every sin damages a relationship. Either it damages a relationship with God, it damages a relationship with someone else, or it damages both relationships. Wrongdoing hurts. Only you can decide if you want to change your mind; there is no mitzvah to change. But if you're going to change, if you're going to turn your life around, there's a Mitzvah to change the right way.

Teshuvah is not just self-improvement, it's about repairing your relationships with those who count. It's about healing the harm that you've caused. You can do that through Vidui, and Vidui, by the way, is not an easy thing to do.

The words are a very simple sentence. A simple sentence that has a subject, a verb and an object – "I have wronged you." But if you compromise any one of those words, either the subject or the verb or the object, it doesn't really work.

Vidui might be magic and might be like going into a Mikvah, but there's very little partial credit. If you come and try to apologize to somebody and you don't really recognize your culpability, you don't recognize the 'I.'

"I recognize that a wrong was committed to you, but I don’t really see that I had another choice." That's not really an act of recognition. It doesn't work to rebalance a relationship. If I compromise the verb, "I understand that I did something, but what I did was a mistake." You know? I'm sorry for the mistakes that I've made." It's not about a mistake; a wrong implies real responsibility. I've wronged you. There's a subject, there's a verb, and there's an object.

If you ever want to keep it straight, just think back on the political apology. "Mistakes have been made in my administration" – no subject, no verb, no object. Who made the mistakes? I don't know – there was no 'I', there was no 'we'; they were made. We don't know who made them.

And what happened? What's the verb? There was no wrong that was done, there was no sin. There were mistakes; mistakes were made. And who did they affect? We don't know who they affected. Mistakes were made; maybe they affected somebody, maybe they didn't. There's no subject, there's no verb, there's no object – there's no nothing.

It's so easy to pretend you're apologizing without apologizing! And it's so hard to really recognize, but when you do, you go into the Mikvah, and you can come out being able to move on again with the other person, with God.

You can't say you're sorry unless you've left behind the sin; unless you're not doing it anymore, unless you're not anticipating, unless you're not reveling in what it is that you've done – you have to leave it behind. But leaving it behind doesn't heal a relationship; only Vidui, only acknowledgement, heals a relationship. But you can't acknowledge unless you've let go of what it is that you've done.

You put those things together and then you have real meaningful change. Change that doesn't just make me a better person, but heals our relationships and lends them vibrancy and richness: let's just go on and grow together.

Understanding Hilchot Teshuvah

We've talked about in our first video about the apparent oxymoron of Hilchot Teshuvah, it seems so self-contradictory; laws, objectives; teshuvah, so subjective, so personal.

Teshuvah is not just self-help; it's repairing a relationship. And when I try to repair a relationship with you, there's a right way to do this. And all of the laws of Teshuvah conspire to help you do it the right way.

You can't lean when you say Vidui, why? You have to say Vidui out loud; why do you have to say it out loud? Maybe to another person, but to God? Can't God understand your thoughts?

Vidui needs to be said out loud, because that's the way you relate to someone. Vidui is an exchange – "I'm apologizing to you." And exchange means that the words have to come out of me and go to you. Thoughts aren't enough.

If somebody wrongs you, it's not enough to just look at their face and kind of see that they look regretful. If they look you in the eye and say they're sorry, they've given you something. They've given you words; and when you accept those words, the relationship between you can be rebalanced, can be healed. And so the same is true even with God. To rebalance our relationship with God, we have to give Him words too.

And of course, whenever you say something, it's not just what you say – it's your body language too. Most of our communication really comes in non-verbal form, in body language.

When a kid apologizes to a parent for throwing a baseball through the window, they're slouching when they do so, what does his body language say? The parents can look at the kid and say, "Stand up straight and tell me you're sorry!"

What do you mean, stand up straight? When I stand up straight, I take responsibility for what I've done. That's Vidui. I did this – that's the 'I.'

When you lean, your body language says, "It wasn't really me entirely. It was this other thing too." You can't do Vidui when your words say one thing, and your body language says something else.

The Steps to True Repentance

So the bottom line is this: the Rambam is actually giving us a road map here. He's helping us to see what Teshuvah is, and how it works. And Vidui done right, is right at the center of that.

The words that we call Vidui have the power to change everything; and therein, lies the Mitzvah that's the kernel of it all.

Hi, this is Rabbi David Fohrman. I want to thank you so much for watching this series of videos. I really hope you enjoyed them. We're always working on new and exciting courses for you. I want to encourage you to subscribe to Aleph Beta Academy. Just go to and you can sign right up. You'll get unlimited access to our library and you'll be a part of this great continuing journey.

Please continue learning with us. I look forward to having you aboard.

Please sign in or sign up to comment.