“They will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers….then I will remember My covenant…”—Leviticus 26:40, 42.
This week’s portion speaks about the rewards and punishments for keeping or abandoning G‑d‘s commandments, as well as the forgiveness granted for those who repent. The traditional interpretation of these verses is that G‑d promises that as soon as His people confess their sins, He will have mercy on them. There are, however, various understandings of what constitutes proper confession.
Does one confess after having thoroughly reformed his conduct? Or can one confess even before having resolved to actually change his ways?
There is a rabbinic expression: “He who confesses but has yet to decide in his heart to abandon his sinful conduct resembles one who immerses in a ritual bath to purify himself while holding a small, defiling creature in his hand.” In other words, it would seem that his attempted spiritual cleansing is futile for he still clings to his old ways.
However, if this analogy really means to say that his confession is useless, why does it compare the person to one who attempts an invalid purification? Why not say that it is like one who does not immerse at all?
The answer is that the very act of verbal confession, even when a person has yet to resolve to change his conduct, contains an aspect of good which is likened to the purifying act of immersion, albeit with a defiling animal in his hand which eventually must be cast aside. However, the fact that one has not yet undergone the process of sincere penitence should not prevent him from admitting his wrongs.
When a person says he that he has done wrong, then, even if he has not yet resolved in his heart to take action, the words themselves rouse him to feelings of contrition that will, in time, lead him to actually change.
This teaching should make sense to any alcoholic who has gone through the personal house cleaning process. In Step 4 we “swallowed and digested some big chunks of truth” about ourselves and in Step 5 we shared with another person exactly what it was that we found. At that point, we had not yet changed, or even resolved to change ourselves. But even if we could not yet bring ourselves to get rid of our flaws, we could at least lay them out there and get an honest look at them. It was only afterwards, in Steps 6 and 7, that we became ready to give up our defects of character and to actually ask G‑d to take them away from us.
Some people question the use of an alcoholic taking personal inventory and admitting to his wrongs early in sobriety. What’s the point of trying to clean house when you still have the same character defects that made the old mess? The answer, however, is clear to anyone who has worked these steps. If confession had to follow penitence – that is, if Steps 6 and 7 came before 4 and 5 – who among us of would have been able to make it?
As heard in a meeting: We had to talk it out before we could actually throw it out.