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.

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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.