The Dimensions of Repentance

How repentance and confession are related

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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.

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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.