The Healing Power of Confession

God is present after we sin.

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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.

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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.