Joel Cohen's Question:

In exquisite and meticulous detail, the Parshah tells us the technicalities of sacrifice—and of "the guilt offering; it is most holy," which is brought for sins committed, both wittingly and unwittingly.

We are told of the blood ceremony; how the fat, the innards, the tail, the kidneys, the diaphragm, and the liver are to be offered up in smoke on the altar. Finally, we are told that every male priest may eat of it "in a holy place."

But where, and what about, the sinner who contributes the guilt offering? He becomes obliged to "confess" his guilt upon bringing the guilt offering.

Still, this doesn't make much sense. It does make sense that a person should confess his sin. But, if his act is unwitting, why should there be anything at all to confess? And if his act is intentional, why is it sufficient that he simply confess his sin? Shouldn't he also be required to repent? But yet, the Torah doesn't tell us that. Instead the Torah tells us of the need to confess sins that the sinner didn't intentionally do, and neglects to demand repentance for the ones he does intentionally.

Has the Torah become too enmeshed in the technicalities of the sacrifice itself, allowing the "meaning" of penitence to take a back seat?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, you have identified the fundamental issue of how one repents in the Jewish tradition.

Maimonides, in his quest to write an encyclopedia of Judaism law, addresses repentance in a separate set of laws at the beginning of his Mishneh Torah. In this work, he describes a three tiered approach to repentance. He writes that if a Jew sins, he/she must:

  1. Recognize the fact that he/she sinned.
  2. Regret the sin.
  3. Commit to never do it again

The Torah tells us that an integral part of the process of the korban (sacrifice) is the confession over the head of the animal. This highlights the fact that the korban is a part of the repentance process but not the whole thing. If a person sins in the time of the Temple, he must bring a sacrifice to the Temple. The bringing of the sin offering is the equivalent of Maimonides' first category: recognizing the sin. Then the sinner must place his hands on the head of the animal and confess the sin. This is the fulfillment of Maimonides' second category: regretting the sin. There is still one aspect of the process of repentance that the korban cannot achieve—that is the acceptance never to sin again. Of course, this is the most difficult part of the repentance process. It is easy to realize when you have sinned, and even to regret your actions. But, to commit to never doing it again? This requires a serious self-evaluation.

The Torah commands the bringing of the korban as the beginning of the process of repentance. It intentionally leaves out the final step in the process, for this last step cannot be accomplished through a korban given in a public setting. It can only be achieved through the private and serious consideration in which we encounter our inner selves.

Joel, the practice of sacrificing in the Temple is far removed from our lives in the twenty-first century. Yet, its message is as relevant to us today as it was when the Torah was given over 3,300 years ago.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

There are essentially several parts to your questions. I will address each one individually.

a) What is the objective of a verbal confession?

The Sefer Hachinuch writes in his commentary to Mitzvah 364, the mitzvah requiring a verbal confession of sins:

"Through verbal confession of sin, the sinner reveals his thoughts and feelings, that he truly believes that all his deeds are revealed and known before G‑d, and that he will not continue acting as if "the Eye that sees" does not see. Furthermore, through mentioning the specific sin, he will feel remorseful about it, and he will be more careful on other occasions not to stumble again in similar fashion."

This demonstrates that the confession is an integral part of the repentance process, as the raised awareness of the sin and the accompanying shame propel one to a more sincere and enhanced level of repentance.

On a mystical level, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1749-1866) writes in Derech Mitzvotecha that repentance is not only a means to gain forgiveness, but actually retroactively uproots and "undoes" the sin—and confession is a fundamental part of this process. Just as the sin was comprised of two elements, physical and emotional – namely, the physical wrongdoing and the passion that fueled it – the repentance also requires a physical and emotional manifestation. The heartfelt regret uproots the sinful passion, and the sinful deed is reversed through a physical deed of repentance, namely, confession (which requires the verbal enunciation performed by the lips).

b) Is there a point to confession if one did not repent?

Maimonides writes in the Law of Repentance:

"One is required to confess with one's lips and state verbally those things which he has resolved in his heart. If a person confesses verbally, but has not resolved in his heart to repent, it is comparable to one who immerses in a mikvah (purifying pool of water) while grasping a sheretz (a creature that transmits ritual impurity) in his hands."

It could be argued, however, that the confession does in fact have meaning even without the prerequisite repentance. Even an "insincere" confession helps a person feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, hopefully initiating the repentance process.

c) Is repentance itself a requirement of the Torah?

(The following is mostly quoted from an article by Naftali Silberberg, Do You Resent Being Told What To Do?—EP)

Maimonides writes, "If a person transgresses…he is required to confess before G‑d when he repents and returns from his sin." This wording seemingly implies that repentance is not the actual mitzvah; rather, repentance is the circumstance that triggers the mandatory mitzvah of confession.

Though the commentaries debate whether this is indeed Maimonides' intention with these words, the Minchat Chinuch maintains that repentance is indeed wholly optional. He posits that the Torah only requires us to confess if we repent, much as we are commanded to slaughter an animal if we desire to eat meat—but eating meat per se is not obligatory.

An understanding of the nature of teshuvah (repentance) sheds light on its anomalous nature.

Our relationship with G‑d seems to be scripted from the moment we rub our eyes open in the morning until the moment we shut them for the night. The tasks demanded by this relationship – all 613 of them – seemingly don't leave much room for improvisation, for impromptu and original outbursts of care and love. You want to compliment Him—great, you are just fulfilling your requirement to pray. You want to give Him something special, maybe a nice donation to the synagogue—nice, but you have just satisfied your obligation to give charity.

But in the parameters of a relationship, there's something special, a particular genuineness, about an unsolicited and unexpected act. It's a more accurate reflection of who you really are and what you really want to be doing. So where does that leave us with regards to our relationship with G‑d?

Luckily we do have the ability to express ourselves in the course of this all-important relationship. The uncharted part of our relationship is teshuvah. Accurately translated, teshuvah means "return." Teshuvah is about returning and reconnecting with one's inner self, one's very essence. At the core of every Jew there is a soul which is a burning coal of love for G‑d, a soul whose only desire is to connect to its Creator and serve Him dutifully. Connecting with one's true self, and thus revealing the awesome relationship which one shares with G‑d, automatically cleanses one of all sins, and is the starting point of a new chapter in life, a chapter dominated by new goals and priorities.

With this understanding, it is clear that teshuvah cannot be a commandment. Teshuvah is the ultimate expression of one's self—and following a command is not the truest expression of self.

d) Why does someone who has inadvertently sinned need to confess?

Generally speaking, sacrificial offerings were brought to atone for sins that were committed inadvertently. Why is someone who made an honest mistake required to repent, bring a sacrifice, and confess to an act done with no malicious intent?

The mystics explain that though the sin itself was committed unwittingly, the possibility for such an error is an indication that the individually is spiritually lacking; were he to be spiritually complete he would not even sin inadvertently, as the verse states: "A righteous individual will not happen upon iniquity" (Proverbs 12:21).

Inadvertent sin is a direct result of having allowed one's animalistic tendencies to get out of hand, for things that a person does without thinking tend to reflect that in which he is immersed, and where his true pleasure lies. The actions of a truly holy individual – even the unintentional ones – are good and holy; succumbing to evil – even inadvertently – is an indication that a person does not find his pleasure in goodness alone.

In summation, repentance is something that you do on your own initiative, but the Torah's requirement of confession provides the tools to get there efficiently.