Changing The Past, Fixing The Future


“When a man or woman shall commit any sin … they shall confess their sin which they have committed.” [Numbers 5:6-7]

According to Maimonides, this verse, which obligates confession, is the basic source for the commandment of repentance; repentance is incomplete without verbal confession. Writing in his Mishneh Torah [Hilkhot Teshuva 1:1] he rules that “if a person violates any [commandment] either intentionally or accidentally, his act of repentance must be accompanied with confession before God, because it’s written in the Torah, then they shall confess their sin which they have committed.”

Detailing the nuts and bolts of repentance, Maimonides divides the process into four pragmatic steps: recognition of sin; confession; the act of resolving never to repeat the sin; and, in order to effectuate “total repentance,” resistance from repeating the transgression when tempted under similar circumstances. Hence guilt, the inevitable accompaniment of sin, can be dealt with by means of repentance, which has the power to totally obliterate the act of wrongdoing.

But in Judaism, as we began to see from Maimonides, a violation of any commandment — whether purposeful or accidental, conscious or unconscious — may be repented for and forgiven. That and more: a sin may become the means for creative betterment; a transgression may be transformed into a good deed, a black mark into a brilliant jewel — a sort of alchemy for the soul. Our present is not controlled by the past, but our present has the ability to change the past. As Professor Mordechai Rotenberg of the Hebrew University establishes in his work, “Rebiographing and Deviance,” repentance is built into the theology of Judaism, allowing us not only to escape from the permanent scars of past misdeeds but through a transformative ascent our sins become virtues — not just in the metaphoric sense, but in real psychological and interpersonal terms. Through the gift of repentance, each individual can rewrite the events of his life, transforming sin into virtue.

Sources for such transformation can be found in a wide range of classic texts. For example, the Talmud [Yoma 86b] cites Resh Lakish, himself a repentant armed robber, as saying that “when true repentance takes place all transgressions are turned into merits,” and Rabbi Abbahu [Berakhot 34b], who taught that “where the penitent stands is higher than that of the completely righteous individual.”

How is this possible? After all, “of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’” How can we recreate, recast, the past? My rebbe, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, discusses this issue in his classical work “Al HaTeshuva” (“On Repentance,” edited by Pinhas Peli), and he explains it on the basis of the realization that it is usually only when one loses something — an object or a relationship — that one truly appreciates its value. Hence, tragically perhaps, only when one loses closeness to God and the Jewish tradition can one re-embrace with even greater fervor and appreciation than before. As the great Psalmist King David cried out, “From the depths do I call upon you, O God” [Psalms 130:1]; it is precisely the depths of despair that provide me with a jump-start, a push upwards to achieve a close relationship.

The pen used to rewrite our lives (rebiographing) is called repentance, one of Torah’s 613 commandments. To repent means to turn back to the period before we sinned, to turn back the clock of our lives. Even though Maimonides divides the process into four steps, confession must be particularly important to him because, in his chapter on repentance in his Mishneh Torah, in one paragraph the Hebrew word for confession, vidui, is repeated no less than thirteen times.

Perhaps by repeating it so often, Maimonides provides us with a clue as to the process by which Judaism turns sins into virtues.

Confessions which lead to a change of heart and personality differ qualitatively from confessions when lying on a psychiatrist’s couch or in a dark confessional booth. Authentic confession must be expressed directly to God or the individual one sinned against. Such a verbal confession — when the lips speak the words to be heard — becomes not only an “at-one-ment” between two parties, alienated and estranged from each other, but it also makes the individual “at-one” with himself, the self he would like to be and the self he has sadly become. It also brings together and makes “at-one-ment” between conflicting parts of a person’s consciousness: heart and mind, internal feeling and external communication. It allows the individual to confront and verbally express his sin, his imperfection, his failure, to conceptualize what he has done, first to himself, and then to the other he has wronged. It enables him to reconnect with his full self as well as with others, without the mask of self-deception and without the curtain of separation.

Only from such a brutal and truthful encounter with oneself as well as with others can the difficult process of change begin.

A sin [het] is literally a missing of the mark, a disconnect, a failure to make the proper connection and reach out to the other in love. It’s clear that Erich Segal’s ridiculous message that love means “never having to say you’re sorry” is in direct opposition to the Torah’s view. Much the opposite! Saying you’re sorry to another is recognition of the other, realizing the pain of the other. Saying you’re sorry in a relationship is an admission of love, a cry from the heart saying that one feels and sees the hurt that was caused, that one has the courage to admit one’s smallness, one’s selfishness, one’s self-centeredness in the presence of the other, whose love will empower the beloved to become whole, to grow, and to give again.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 8:10 p.m.

Torah: Num. 4:21-7:89

Haftarah: Judges 13:2-25

Havdalah: 9:11