Author Archives: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

About Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was one of the most important Orthodox thinkers of the 20th century. He delivered an annual lecture on repentance that was a highly anticipated event for Modern Orthodox Jews in America.

Kaddish Initiates Aveilut

Excerpted with permission from “The Halakhah of the First Day” in Jewish Reflections on Death, edited by Jack Riemer (Schocken Books).

[After the burial] the dialectical halakhah [Jewish law], which has masterfully employed both the thesis and the antithesis in her treatment of antinomies, makes an about-face. The halakhah was firmly convinced that man is free and that he is master not only of his deeds but of his emotions as well. The halakhah held the view that man’s mastery of his emotional life is unqualified and that he is capable of changing thought patterns, emotional struc­tures, and experimental motifs within an infinitesimal period of time.

Halakhah and Aninut

Man, the halakhah maintained, does not have to wait pa­tiently for one mood to pass and for another to emerge gradu­ally. He disengages himself, quickly and actively, and in a wink replaces a disjunctive frame of mind with a cathartic-­redemptive one. Hence, the halakhah, which showed so much tolerance for the mourner during the stage of aninut, and let him float with the tide of black despair, now–forcefully and with a shift of emphasis–commands him that, with interment, the first phase of grief comes abruptly to a close and a second phase–that of aveilut–begins.

With the commencement of aveilut the halakhah commands the mourner to undertake an heroic task: to start picking up the debris of his own shattered personality and to reestablish himself as man, restoring lost glory, dignity, and uniqueness. Instead of repeating to himself time and again that man has no preeminence over the beast and that all is vanity, he is suddenly told by the halakhah to be mindful of the antithesis: "Thou hast chosen man at the very inception and thou hast recognized him as worthy of standing before Thee."

Yes, the halakhah tells man, death is indeed something ugly and frightening, something grisly and monstrous; yes, death is trailing behind every man, trying to defeat him, his ambitions and aspirations; all that is true. Nevertheless, the halakhah adds, death must not confuse man; the latter must not plunge into total darkness because of death. On the contrary, the halakhah asserts, death gives man the opportunity to display greatness and to act heroically; to build even though he knows that he will not live to enjoy the sight of the magnificent edifice in whose construction he is engaged, to plant even though he does not expect to eat the fruit, to explore, to develop, to en­rich–not himself, but coming generations.

Soloveitchik on Aninut

Excerpted with permission from “The Halakhah of the First Day” in Jewish Reflections on Death, edited by Jack Riemer (Schocken Books).

There are two distinct phases in the process of mourning. The halakhah [Jewish law] has meticulously insisted upon their strict sep­aration. The first phase begins with the death of the relative for whom one is obliged to mourn and ends with the burial. The second commences with burial and lasts seven, or with regard to some aspects, 30 days. The first we call aninut, the second aveilut.

Aninut represents the spontaneous human reaction to death. It is an outcry, a shout, or a howl of grisly horror and disgust. Man responds to his defeat at the hands of death with total resignation and with an all-consuming masochistic, self­-devastating black despair. Beaten by the friend, his prayers re­jected, enveloped by a hideous darkness, forsaken and lonely, man begins to question his own human singular reality. Doubt develops quickly into a cruel conviction, and doubting man turns into mocking man.

At whom does man mock? At himself. He starts downgrading, denouncing himself. He dehumanizes himself. He arrives at the conclusion that man is not human, that he is just a living creature like the beasts in the field. In a word, man’s initial response to death is saturated with malice and ridicule toward himself.

He tells himself: If death is the final destiny of all men, if everything human terminates in the narrow, dark grave, then why be a man at all? Then why make the pretense of being the choicest of all creatures? Then why lay claim to singularity and imago dei? Then why be committed, why carry the human-moral load? Are we not, the mourner continues to question himself, just a band of conceited and inflated day­dreamers who somehow manage to convince themselves of some imaginary superiority over the brutes in the jungle?

The halakhah has displayed great compassion with per­plexed, suffering man firmly held in the clutches of his arch­enemy, death. The halakhah has never tried to gloss over the sorrowful, ugly spectacle of dying man. In spite of the fact that the halakhah has indomitable faith in eternal life, in immortal­ity, and in a continued transcendental existence for all human beings, it did understand, like a loving, sympathetic mother, man’s fright and confusion when confronted with death.

The Akedah and Self-Sacrifice

Excerpted from On Repentance in the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by Pinhas Peli. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright 1996 by Jason Aronson Inc.

The Torah forbade all human sacrifice. The example it uses to describe the abomination of idol‑worship is "for even their sons and their daughters they consume with fire on behalf of their gods" (Deuteronomy 12:31). Yet, although the Torah forbade human offerings, it did not invalidate the idea behind it that man should sacrifice his own self–"that it is proper that [man] spill his blood and burn his flesh" (cf. Nahmanides, Leviticus 1:9)–rather than just bring a bull or two pigeons or turtle-doves. God does not seek offerings from man, he seeks man himself.

This is the foundation of sacrificial practice and it is on this idea that the story of the binding of Isaac is based. On unconditional self‑sacrifice, of body and of soul the Jewish faith is founded. Judaism does not reject the idea behind human sacrifice.

If man is the property of the Holy One, blessed be He, when he hears the voice of God calling to him, "Take now thy son, thine only son … and offer him … for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of," he has no other choice than did Abraham: "And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his ass … and went unto the place of which God had told him." The Torah renounced human sacrifice, and even forbade it–out of the quality of mercy. "Had it not been for the mercy of the Creator who took [other] consideration from us" (cf. Nahmanides, Ibid.), strict justice and absolute truth would have dictated "When any man of you bring an offering" and  stopped there: "of you"–literally so! It was mercy which came and added: "ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd or of the flock."

Others have already pointed out the fact that the name of God that appears throughout the story of the binding of Isaac, is "Elohim": "God (Elohim) did prove Abraham … God (Elohim) will provide Himself the lamb for a burnt ­offering, my son. . ." etc. Only after the angel stays Abraham’s hand and calls out to him, "lay not thy hand upon the lad," does the Ineffable Name of God appear for the first time: "And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven . . ."

Personal Repentance: An Act of Purification

This article relates the liturgy of Yom Kippur to the rituals that were conducted in ancient times. The synagogue rituals it mentions– such as the manner in which the afternoon service is conducted on the eve of Yom Kippur– are presented from a traditional perspective.  Excerpted from On Repentance in the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by Pinhas Peli. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Jason Aronson.

According to Rabbi Judah Hanassi, the Day of Atonement procures acquittal of sin–even for those who have not repented individually (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 84b). The question arises: May a Jew who has sinned, and as a result been discredited as a witness in a court of law, be accepted as a qualified witness on the day after Yom Kippur, even if he has not personally repented? The emphatic answer is: No. Kapparah (acquittal) affects the removal of punishment. The “indemnity payment” shields man from divine anger and wrath. However, his personality remains contaminated, and this condition may be remedied only through ritual “immersion,” that is, by whole‑hearted repentance. Kapparah is possible even when an individual has not repented, but without personal repentance taharah (purification) is unthinkable. 

Kapparah is principally connected to the bringing of sacrifices, and in the Holy Temple the prescribed time for offerings were the daylight hours. Ritual purification, in contrast, begins with nightfall, at the “sanctification of the day”–that time when, according to Jewish law, a new day is born.

Purification is conditional upon our drawing near and standing directly “before God,” and as such, it is a spiritually uplifting experience.

There are two forms of confession on Yom Kippur: a communal, public confession and personal, private one. After the destruction of the Temple, the communal recitation of confession by the synagogue reader was substituted for that of the High Priest. However, the intimate, personal type of confession of a broken man, directed inward to himself, remained exclusively in the area of individual responsibility. This is the confession that brings about purification. The communal confession, which is for kapparah, should be said together with the synagogue reader. However, it is impossible to appoint an intermediary in order to achieve self‑purification, as it is by definition clearly a personal obligation. It is absurd from the point of view of Jewish Law for a ritually impure person to send an appointed agent to immerse himself on the former’s behalf. No one can grant another power of attorney to deliver him from a state of impurity and restore him to a state of holiness.

Elevating Sin

Excerpted from On Repentance in the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by Pinhas Peli. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. © 1996 Jason Aronson Inc.

"The Day of Atonement is the time of repentance for everyone, for the individual as well as for the multitude; it is the goal of the penitential season, appointed unto Israel for pardon and forgiveness" (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance, Chapter 2, Section 7).

The repentance of the Day of Atonement is the repentance of uplifting and exalting sin. "And in His temple everything saith, Glory" (Psalms 29:9) said the Psalmist. "This is the incense of the day of Atonement" was how our sages homiletically interpreted this verse. And the verse immediately preceding it: "The voice of the Lord maketh the hinds to calve and strippeth the forest bare."

On the Day of Atonement, the Holy One, blessed be He, demands of man that he strip the forest bare, that he take his life in his hand and enter the jungle of his soul, where the animal that is in man hides out. God does not ask man to cut down the trees or to uproot the entire jungle. The world needs jungles just as it needs unirrigated fields and beds of flowers. Jungles contain much that is vital and essential; in the depths of the wild a healthy aggressiveness prevails–but woe to the forest through which the voice of the Lord does not penetrate, the voice which makes the hinds calve and strips the forests bare.

Our desire is not to destroy the trees and we do not aim to burn down the jungles but to turn them to the voice of God! And after that has been achieved: "And in His temple everything saith, Glory ‑This is the incense of the Day of Atonement." What is incense? A mixture of galbanum and odoriferous spices. Why is it necessary to adulterate the odoriferous spices with foul smelling galbanum? So as to demonstrate that it is possible to take something evil and mix it with good spices and, as a result, not only does the galbanum not detract from the sweet smell of the incense, but this mixture of good and bad actually enhances and augments its fragrance. On the Day of Atonement, incense is burned in the innermost sanctum of the Temple and on that very day, evil ascends to the Holy of Holies; it is not erased by Him who "overlooks sin" but is sanctified and purified by the elevation of sin.

On the Day of Atonement we are not bidden to tear out pages from the Book of Life or from the history of man. Man is not required to cover‑up and conceal the bad years, the years of sin; rather he has the capacity to sanctify and purify them. Do we not pray to God: "Pardon our iniquities on this Day of Atonement; blot out and remove our transgressions and sins from Thy sight, as it is said: ‘It is I who blot out your transgressions, for My sake; I will remember your sins no more?"’ We thus begin with a prayer for annihilating evil, for blotting out iniquities and remembering them no more. But further on, a second idea is expressed in this very same prayer, the idea that repentance in which sin is annihilated is not enough: "And it is said: ‘For the virtue of this very day shall acquit you of sin, to cleanse you, before God, be you cleansed’"–that is, uplifting and exalting sin. By means of repentance, one can rise and at the same time raise evil to such heights that it may even, together with the incense, enter into the Holy of Holies.

This, then, was the prayer, the command of the High Priest: "Before God, be you cleansed!" It was as if he had declared; Be not satisfied with "He who overlooks sin." Cast your eyes upward towards "He who bears sin and iniquity." It is true that the goal of the sacrificial ritual is to achieve acquittal, to blot out evil and obliterate it. Nevertheless, the goal of the whole service of the Day of Atonement is purification, which is why the High Priest does not say, meekly, "And this is my acquittal" as does the individual in making confession upon his sacrifice. Instead the High Priest demands, loudly and clearly: "0 Grant us acquittal!"

The Double Purpose of Yom Kippur

In this article, the author presents a traditionalist view of sin and punishment, presenting the view that all sin is followed by punishment, whether in this world or the world to come. Excerpted from On Repentance in the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by Pinhas Peli. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Jason Aronson.

Yom Kippur–the Day of Atonement–has a double function. The first is kapparah– acquittalfrom sin or atonement: "For the virtue of this very day shall acquit you of sin" (Lev. 16:30). This was expressed in the prayer recited by the High Priest in the Holy Temple: "Please grant acquittal for sins."

The second aspect of Yom Kippur is taharah-‑ catharsisor purification. As it is written: "For the virtue of this very day shall acquit you of sin, to cleanse you…" This, too, was brought out in the Yom Kippur Temple service. The High Priest pronounced to the assembled people: "Before God, be you cleansed."

These two motifs recur repeatedly in all the prayers said on Yom Kippur. "Acquit us… pour cleansing waters upon us…"

Both of these elements, acquittal and purification, are a direct response and remedy for the ontological effects of sin. This is because sin places man under the burden of culpable liability, and it defiles him as well.

In order to understand the concepts of kapparah (acquittal) and taharah (purification), one must find out what is meant by liability and defilement which are brought about by sin.

Sin and its punishment are born together. No sin goes without its retribution, whether it be meted out by a terrestrial or a celestial court. The belief in reward and punishment is fundamental to Jewish belief: "A man who says that the Holy One, blessed be He, is lax in the execution of justice, shall be disemboweled for it is stated, He is the Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are judgment" (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama 50a).

And in the Torah it is written: "Know therefore that the Lord thy God is the faithful God Who keeps covenant and shows mercy to those that love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations, and repays those that hate Him … to destroy them" (Deuteronomy 7:9). Jewish creed is based on the belief in reward and punishment and on the conviction that sin is by no means a transitory phenomenon that passes by, leaving no trace and incurring no liability. Sin and punishment are always linked together. If you will, the very definition of sin is that it is an act that entails paying a penalty. If punishment exists, it is because sin does too.

Kapparah means: forgiveness or withdrawal of claim. This is a legal concept, borrowed from the laws of property. Just as one may release his fellow man of a debt owed to him, so may God absolve one of penalty to which he is liable due to sin. Kapparah removes the need for punishment.

We find the first instance of Kapparah in the story of the sin of Cain (Genesis 4:7). "If you shall do better," God admonishes Cain, "the punishment will be carried over," and if you do not, "sin (punishment) crouches at the opening." The punishment is linked, understandably, to the sinful act. The Bible also speaks of the removal of sin . The prophet Nathan said to King David (11 Samuel 12:4): "The Lord has also removed your sin, you shall not die."

The medieval Bible commentator, Rashi, while explaining the verse in Genesis 32:21, observed that "whenever the term kapparah is used in connection with a matter of trespass and sin … it has the connotation of wiping away and removal." That is to say, a barrier is set up through which punishment may not pass.

By means of teshuvah (repentance) and kapparah (acquittal) man puts a protective covering between himself and the punishment for his sin. According to Rashi, the words "kapparah" (acquittal) and "kofer" (indemnity payment) are derived from the same Hebrew root ["kfr”] and have a common signification. Punishment is not a self‑negating phenomenon–an indemnity must be offered and paid in order to withdraw the liability claim. That indemnity payment is made through teshuvah (repentance) itself. Kapparah (acquittal) is the result of the payment of this "ransom" which releases and redeems man from punishment.

All this concerns the liability incurred by the sinner. The moment acquittal is granted and punishment wiped from the books, man’s liability is terminated.

However, sin also has a polluting quality. The Jewish view recognizes a state of "impurity of sin" (tum’at ha‑het). The entire Bible abounds in references to this idea of self‑pollution, contamination, rolling about in the mire of sin. This impurity makes its mark on the sinner’s personality. Sin, as it were, removes the divine halo from man’s head, impairing his spiritual integrity. In addition to the frequent appearance of this idea in Scriptures and in the homiletical teachings of the Aggadah, we also find many concrete references to the "impurity of sin" in the halakha (Jewish Law).

An Israelite who has transgressed suffers a reversal in his legal status. Should a man commit a prohibited act and be charged with stripes or capital punishment, not only does he have to pay the penalty for his sins, he is also discredited as a witness in a court of Jewish Law. This does not constitute further punishment but is rather indicative of a change in his personal status. As a result of sin, man is not the same person he was before.

Every man is presumed acceptable as a credible witness. Natural truthfulness is, to my way of thinking, an integral part of man’s character. The moment a person sins he lessens his own worth, brings himself down, and becomes spiritually defective, thus forgoing his former status. Sin deprives man of his natural privileges and unique human attributes. He is subjected to a complete transformation as his original personality departs and another one replaces it. This is not a form of punishment, or a fine, and is not imposed in a spirit of anger, wrath, or vindictiveness. It is a "metaphysical" corruption of the human personality, of the divine image of man.

The Communists speak of the commission of "error" and of "deviation," but have no concept of sin. Error carries no implication of metaphysical impurity or of psychic pollution. An "error" is a legal, rational term which must be distinguished from "sin," which harms the inner quality of man and has a deep and far‑reaching effect on his being.

Indeed, true teshuvah not only achieves kapparah, it should also bring about taharah from tum’ah (spiritual pollution), liberating man from his hard‑hearted ignorance and insensitivity. Such teshuvah restores man’s spiritual viability and rehabilitates him to his original state.

And sometimes … it makes man rise to heights he never dreamt he could reach.

The Dimensions of Repentance

This article analyzes a selection from the Laws of Repentance by Rabbi Moses Maimonides. Maimondes, also known as the Rambam, was a Jewish philosopher who lived in the 12th century. The Laws of Repentance are a section of his work the Mishnah Torah, which was a codification of Jewish law. Excerpted from On Repentance in the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by Pinhas Peli. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. © 1996 Jason Aronson Inc.

In Chapter 1, Section 1 of the Laws of Repentance, Maimonides wrote: "With regard to all the precepts of the Torah, both affirmative and negative, if a person transgresses any one of them, either willfully or in error, when he repents and turns away from his sin, he is under a duty to confess before God, blessed be He, as it is said, ‘when a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit…they shall confess their sin which they have done’ (Numbers 5:6‑7)–this means confess in words; and this confession is an affirmative precept."

And Maimonides continues:

"How does one confess? By saying, ‘I beseech Thee, 0 Lord, I have sinned, I have acted perversely, I have transgressed before Thee, and have done thus and thus, and lo, I am contrite and ashamed of my deeds and will never do this again. This constitutes the essence of confession."

"This constitutes the essence of confession"–these are the core components and basic framework of confession. Of course, various additions may be made, but they must always center around the three fundamental components, which are: 1) acknowledgment of sin ("I have sinned, I have acted perversely, I have transgressed’); 2) remorse ("I am contrite and ashamed of my deeds’); 3)resolution for the future ("I will never do this again’). These three stages constitute "the essence of confession."

And Maimonides adds: "The more one confesses and elaborates on this matter, the more praiseworthy he is. And, also, those under an obligation to bring sin‑offerings and trespass‑offerings, who bring their sacrifices for sins committed either in error or willfully, are not acquitted [of their sins] by means of these offerings until they repent and confess in words…" In other words, sacrifice alone cannot bring acquittal; confession is a sine qua non, and without it repentance cannot take place. Even if one has decided to abandon sin and to radically alter one’s way of life, it does not amount to a complete act of repentance; without confession acquittal is denied. Confession is mandatory not only for those who, having sinned are obligated to bring sacrifices, but also for "those who have incurred the judicial penalty of death or punishment of stripes"–"they do not attain acquittal through death or [by the punishment of]stripes, until they repent and confess. Similarly, one who inflicts a wound on another person or causes him monetary damage, is not acquitted even after he has paid [the injured party] what he owes him, until he confesses and penitently resolves never to commit the same offense again…"

Note carefully that only the first half of the formula of confession which Maimonides sets forth as obligatory is identical with the formula employed by the High Priest in the Temple on the Day of Atonement ("I beseech Thee, 0 Lord! I have sinned …;" cf. Mishnah Yoma 3:8). In place of the second half ("I am contrite and ashamed … I will never do this again"), the High Priest used to offer a prayer and say: "I beseech Thee, 0 Lord, acquit me of the iniquities and the transgressions and the sins which I have committed before Thee!" Maimonides deleted the prayer portion from the formula of remorse ("I am contrite and ashamed and resolution for the future ("I will never do this again").

Elsewhere in the Mishnah Torah (Laws of Sacrificial Procedure, Chapter 3, Section 14), Maimonides ruled that every sacrifice must be accompanied by confession. "Whoever brings a burnt‑offering, confesses; a sin‑offering, confesses; a trespass‑offering, confesses …" What is the formula of confession to be used by one who sins in error and is obligated to bring a sin offering? The answer to this question seems, at first, to belong to the Laws of Repentance, in which is found the formula for confession quoted above. However, in the Laws of Sacrificial Procedure, Maimonides sets forth another formula of confession (Chapter 3, Section 15).

"How does one confess? One says, ‘I have sinned, I have acted perversely, I have transgressed, and have done thus and thus and I have come back in repentance before Thee and this is my acquittal.’"

If we compare the two formulae of confession, the following significant differences can be discerned between them. The first one that is in the Laws of Repentance has the phrase "before Thee" appear immediately after "I have sinned, I have acted perversely, I have transgressed;" while in the second formula, in the Laws of Sacrificial Procedure, it appears later, in the phrase "I have come back in repentance before Thee." At the same time, in the second formula, the element of resolution for the future ("I will never do this again") has been dropped; instead, there appears the phrase "and this is my acquittal," whose meaning is far from clear.

In light of this, it may be said that the concept of confession has more than one dimension. It is not an act that has an independent existence, nor is it something that stands on its own. It is, rather, the finale, the conclusion of another act–that of "repentance."

As we have already explained on several occasions, repentance is not a sudden occurrence. It does not begin at nightfall of the eve of the Day of Atonement, just moments before the recitation of confession. Repentance sprouts forth and grows in the course of a long and drawn‑out process typified by doubt and speculation, soul-searching and spiritual reckoning. First comes the inner stirring which generates actual repentance. A great gap often intercedes between the idea and the act, for crystallized thinking is the end product of intuitive, undefined thoughts. They take hold of one in the darkness of the night, they emerge from the innermost recesses of the secret self, and man tries to fend off some of them and hide them from himself, not to mention, from others. The road that leads from these first stirrings until the actual contemplation of repentance is long, indeed and even then, after the rational idea is clearly formed in thought, it must be reborn and translated into action.

To do this necessarily entails expressing the thought of repentance in words, and working it out in logical terms. Pure thought on its own, no matter how exact and penetrating, is simply not grasped until it is formed into words. We know many truths about ourselves that we do not dare to express in public, and even avoid saying them to ourselves. It is not easy to give expression to our thoughts–all the more so when these thoughts are unflattering–but without doing so no act of confession can take place. Indeed, confession is no simple matter. Were it an easy thing to confess, the Torah would not have demanded it of us, for what need is there for a commandment to do something that requires no effort? And if Maimonides made a point of stressing the requirement of doing confession, that alone is a sign that it is only achieved with difficulty.

Confession is not something that comes about suddenly, and it is certainly not the mechanical recitation of a set formula–it is, rather, part and parcel of repentance, the climactic finale of a drawn‑out, exhausting process. And just as repentance cannot be considered complete until it has brought man to confess, so too, confession is not valid unless it bursts forth from within the fiery depths of the furnace of repentance.

A basic principle of the laws of property is that "matters [that are only] within the heart are of no significance" (literally: "are not matters") (See: Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 49b). If your intention is serious, if you really plan something–say it. As long as man has not confessed, his "repentance" in not considered complete. He may think in his heart: "From now on, I shall observe the Sabbath, I’ll close my store at the start of the Sabbath, I shall be straight and honest in all my dealings and cheat no one, I’ll study Torah at regular and set times."

All these are commendable thoughts, but, as long as they are not expressed verbally, they do not comprise an act of repentance. Confession is the climax of the process of repentance; only after confession has been made can repentance be effective. Is this not what Maimonides wrote in Chapter 3, Section 2 of the Laws of Repentance? "And what is repentance? That the sinner abandon and strip himself of his sin and resolve in his heart never to do it again … and also that he be contrite over [what he has done in] the past … and he must confess in words, with his lips, and declare verbally all that which he has resolved in his heart."

Thus, according to Maimonides, confession is the concretization of repentance. Speech, the verbalizing of confession, endows the thought of repentance with reality. It is the climax and final chord of the long and tortuous internal process of repentance.

The Healing Power of Confession

Excerpted from On Repentance in the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by Pinhas Peli. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Jason Aronson.

When man sins, he creates a distance between himself and God and becomes, in Maimonides’ words (Laws of Repentance, Chapter 7, Section 7), "separated from the Lord, God of Israel," as it is written, "Your iniquities have separated between you and your God" (Isaiah 59:2). The end result of sinning is the driving out, as it were, of the Holy Presence. But who then, will take care of the sinner, after the Holy One removes Himself and the sinner is left alone? Who will help him to cut himself off from his sins and escape from their contamination? Who will lead him back home to his Heavenly Father? Who will extend a helping hand to rescue him from the quicksand into which he has sunk?

"Thou extendest a hand to sinners and Thy right arm stretches forth to receive the penitent." The sinner begins to struggle and twists and turns but lacks the strength to extricate himself. He must be assisted. Someone must give him a hand. And then "Thou extendest a hand to sinners"–as one extends a hand to a child, helping him as he takes his first steps. "Thy right arm stretches forth to receive the penitent"–When the sinner has already begun to walk and run by himself, how many obstacles are strewn in the path before him, how easy it is for him to stumble and fall! And here arms are stretched forth to receive him, just as one holds out one’s arms to embrace a running child lest he fall.

Who is it that extends a hand to the sinner and stretches forth his right arm to receive penitents? What is the internal voice that seizes hold of the sinner and draws him away from sin? From whence the voice within his conscience that calls him to "Return!" if the Holy One, Blessed be He has rejected him and is far removed from him as a result of his sins? Who will read the soul of the evildoer? "The wicked are like the troubled sea" (Isaiah 57:20): Why does the evildoer in vain seek peace and quiet? Who is it that disturbs his tranquility?

"The Lord, the Lord"–two times the Ineffable Name is mentioned: The first removes Himself from the sinner, abandons him, but the second, the Lord who is there after man sins, remains. The "Holy King," what the Kabbalah refers to as the sphere of "Glory" or "Foundation" departs, for it can have no part with the world of sin. But the Shekhinah [presence of God], as "Kingdom," still remains.

"And he shall make atonement for that which is holy, because of the impurity of the children of Israel …that dwelleth with them in the midst of their impurity" (Leviticus 16:16). "That which is holy"–that is the Holy One, blessed be He, who becomes impure, as it were, from the iniquities of the children of Israel. Sin is contaminating, and even the Holy one, blessed be He, as it were, becomes contaminated.

But the Shekhinah never departs completely from any Jew, no matter how far he has gone or how deep he has immersed himself in sin. God is there after man sins, He remains hidden in the inner recesses of the heart of even the worst evildoer until the moment arrives when he remembers his Maker and renounces his ways and repents. Rabbi Meir ran after his master, Elisha ben Avuya [who had abandoned traditional Jewish belief and practice], and called upon him to repent. But Elisha did not respond because he heard a voice calling, "’Return Israelunto the Lord your God’–all except ‘Aher’ (the ‘other,’ a term of derision for Elisha ben Avuya). Only Elisha, whose sins bore down so heavily upon him and cast him so far away heard such a voice which does not really exist" (Babylonian Talmud, Hagiga 15a).

There are no "excepts" to repentance. And, indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud records that "Aher" confessed before he died and that Rabbi Meir said: "My master died, while crying."

Even "Aher," who forsook his past and gave up his world, whose senses were dimmed and whose feelings became petrified, reached the moment when he broke down and cried, when he recalled his youthful years as a disciple of Rabbi Joshua. Who was it that brought tears to "Aher’s" eyes?

The God who is there after man sins! The God who did not remove himself even from the heart of "Aher!" The God who is there before man sins closes the gates after man has sinned. The sinner becomes cut off, he is cast far away. What does he do then? Is he cut off for evermore? Definitely not! He can still cry out to God who is there after man sins. The second Holy Name is ready to listen even after the first has shut the gates of "Glory" through which man passes to stand before his Maker.

When someone reaches the closed gates he has to cry out: "0, I beseech Thee!" "Open the gates for those who come knocking in repentance!" "Allow us to repent and to enter!"

On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would shout out the Ineffable Name of God three times. Why was this so? So as to arouse the sinners to repent and confess, which can occur only in the wake of the "Name" (of God) who is there after man sins, the divine quality that swells within man even during his impurity. Man is sunk up to his neck in the quicksand of his sins, he is abandoned and cut off and all his friends have deserted him, his strength has left him–every one except God has abandoned him! "0 Lord!"–open the gates a little to let me come before You. "0 Lord, I beseech Thee!"–forgive me, purify me, cleanse me of all my filth, for I am soiled and full of defects! And then: "For the virtue of this very day shall acquit you of sin, to cleanse you; you shall be clean before the Lord!" When the Ineffable Name was proclaimed for the third time, after the cleansing, man could again find himself "before the Lord," as he is allowed once again to approach God who is there before man has sinned.

"And he [the High Priest] prolonged the intoning of the Divine Name… and said to them: Be you cleansed." After the cleansing, the quality of "Glory" once again shines in all its splendor, and whoever has sinned and has been cleansed glows alongside it in refined purity. In Maimonides’ words, he is now loved and desired and close at hand, a friend."

It was for this reason that Maimonides considered it indispensable that the Ineffable Name be incorporated within the formula of confession. Without the Name of God who is there after man sins, man would be ground into the dust and oppressed by darkness and death. Only the Name signifying the God who does not abandon man after he sins can lead him back, and extricate him from the dark dungeon of iniquity.