“They shall confess their sin that they committed…” (Bamidbar 5:7).
The Rambam states (Hilchos Teshuvah) that if a person does an aveirah – whether wittingly or unwittingly – he must say viduy (he must confess) before Hashem as part of doing teshuvah.
Having regret (charatah) is not enough. A person must completely abandon the aveirah; he must confess and accept upon himself to be especially conscientious not to do this sin again in the future. Without taking all these steps, a person does not receive atonement for his sin.
The Sefer HaChinuch explains that viduy isn’t in itself teshuvah. Rather, it helps a person do teshuvah. Clearly stating that he regrets his actions and promises not to repeat his sin actually assists him in achieving his intent. By verbally expressing the thoughts of his mind and owning up to his misdeeds, he will take extra care not to lapse again, and that in itself appeases Hashem. In other words, the viduy creates a self-awareness that gets to the root of the sin, eradicates it, and removes the elements that caused the individual to err initially.
Obviously, states the Me’ayen HaNitzchi, viduy has to be said with the proper intentions. A person who merely beats his chest with his fist and reads the words without emotion has not cultivated the regret and resolve necessary to remove himself from sin. The great mussar giants often said: It is not the hand that has to strike the heart; it is the heart that has to hit the hand.
In fact, if a person confesses his sin with apathy and indifference, he is almost offering a deceitful prayer. Not only is such an insincere confession not a mitzvah; it may even be a sin.
In the Yom Kippur davening, we ask forgiveness for “the sin we have committed before You by verbal confession.” What do these words mean? Isn’t viduy a mitzvah? R’ Meir of Apt explains that, indeed, there is no greater mitzvah than uttering a confession that comes from the inner recesses of the heart of a person who strongly desires to extricate himself from sin. However, a person who merely pays lip service with his viduy – reading it in a perfunctory manner with no heartfelt emotion – is committing a sin for which he needs forgiveness.
Viduy is not reserved for Yom Kippur and special occasions. Many have the custom to recite viduy (v’ashamnu) daily in Shemone Esrei as a way of fostering inspiration to do teshuvah. The Bnei Yissoschor observes that in earlier generations the v’ashamnu was only recited on a daily basis in gatherings that included a concentration of talmidei chachamim.
The practice was not to recite the v’ashamnu regularly among the general population for fear that the people, preoccupied with their everyday concerns of livelihood, would lack the appropriate kavanah necessary for the viduy, and thereby cause more harm than good by saying it. Such is the significance of proper kavanah in tefillah and doing teshuvah.
A young man who had fallen in with an unsavory crowd became involved in behavior that ran on the wrong side of the law. It eventually reached the attention of the courts and a date was set to convict him. The evidence against him was overwhelming, and his lawyer advised him that there was no defense that could be offered.
Having lost all hope, the young man who had abandoned Yiddishkeit decided to go to the Ribnitzer Rebbe, who was known for having helped thousands of troubled souls. When he stood in front of the Rebbe, the young man began to cry. “I regret what I have done, but all my crying and regret will not help me in court.”
“My dear friend,” said the Rebbe, “all will be well for you if you follow my advice. Before your day in court, learn the explanation of all the words of viduy well, from v’ashamnu. Understand the meaning of each word and the proper kavanah behind the words. On the day of your trial, after all the charges against you have been laid out, you should stand up and recite the viduy in court, and the Heavenly Judge will come to your aid.
The young man advised his lawyer of the plan and spent many days studying the viduy well. The lawyer was skeptical and told him that there was no way he would avoid a jail sentence. “If you start with these antics,” he said to the young man, “it will only make your sentence worse.” However, the young man advised his lawyer that he would be following the instructions of the Ribnitzer Rebbe.
In court, after the charges were presented, the young man rose and, in a tearful voice, began to recite the v’ashamnu prayer. The judge did not understand a single word and asked the lawyer what he said.
“This is the most profound way in which a Jew expresses his heartfelt regret, pain and anguish for the sins he has committed,” explained the lawyer. The young man then translated the v’ashamnu word for word, and the judge began to weep. Shortly thereafter, he excused himself from the courtroom.
When the judge returned a while later, he declared the trial over and stated, “I have been sitting on the bench for more than 30 years, yet I have never heard a person admit and confess his sins from such a deep place in his heart. His words brought me to tears, and for that reason I forgive him.”
The prosecuting attorney protested, “How do you know he is sincere?”
“I have no question in my mind that it was sincere,” explained the judge, “because I know how deeply his words seared my heart.”