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When G-d Wants You to Compliment Yourself

Before I Confess My Sins, I Must Confess My Greatness

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    4196 views
  • September 3, 2020
  • |
  • 14 Elul 5780
  • Comment

Class Summary:

I want to do something ambitious with this essay: I want to bring back confessions to Judaism. People attribute confession to Catholicism, as the job of the priests. I believe it is time to bring it back to our people. And I am going to ask each of you that during the day you should make at least one confession to a loved one.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Savo, discusses an interesting law known as “Vidui Maaser,” “the Tithing Confession.” Every few years, a farmer would recite a special declaration proclaiming that he distributed all the necessary charities from his produce. What is so strange is that this recitation is virtually the furthest thing from a confession. A “vedu,” a confession, in its classic sense, is that we admit our guilt and ask for forgiveness. "We are guilty; we have dealt treacherously; we have stolen; we spoke falsely, etc." We confess for the sins and errors that we committed; we express remorse and we resolve to change in the future. Yet in this case, we encounter a “confession” of the opposite nature. We compliment ourselves! We tell G-d how good we are.

Imagine a man comes to his wife and says: My dear, I want to make a confession. Your wife’s ears perk up to hear what did you do now. You continue: I am the most perfect and awesome man!

It is here we discover what is a real confession in Judaism. It was one of the great novel ideas of the Baal Shem Tov. It is also the reason there was a cantor who would sing a merry song while confessing his sins.

Dedicated by Baruch Yosef Markoff, in the loving memory of his great grandfather, Avrohom ben Avrohom (Abraham Newman), for the Yartzeit, Elul 15

Do I Have to Tell Him?

An old German man was feeling guilty about something he had done, so he decided to go to Confession.

He said, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I feel terrible because during World War II, I hid a Jew in my attic."

The priest said, "But that's not a sin! I wouldn't feel bad about that if I were you."

"But I made him agree to pay me 50 Marks for every week he stayed."

The priest said, "Well, I admit that it wasn't the noblest thing to do, charging the man to save his life, but you did save his life, after all, and that is a good thing. Don't worry about it too much; G-d forgives."

The man said, "Oh thank you, Father, that eases my mind. I have only one more question to ask you: Do I have to tell him the war is over?"

Make a Confession!

I want to achieve an ambitious goal with this essay: I want to bring back confession to Judaism. People attribute confession to Catholicism; they think it is the job of the priests. I believe it is time to bring it back to our people. I am going to ask of each of my readers that during the following day you should make at least one confession.

Now before you dismiss my plea, allow me to explain myself.

Tithing Cycle

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Savo, discusses an interesting law known as “Vidui Maaser,” “the Tithing Confession.”

In the Holy Land, tithes must be taken from one's crops, according to a set three-year cycle. During each of the three years, a portion of the produce (around 2 percent) is given to the Kohanim, the priests, who had no income of their own (due to their Temple service). This is known as terumah. Another portion of the produce (around 10 percent) was given to the Levites, who also had no income of their own, as they also served in the Temple and served as teachers. This was known as maasar reshon, the first tithing. There were other tithes that differed from year to year. Here is a quick glance:

Year 1—in addition to terumah and maser reshon, you separate a portion of the crop, known as maaser sheni. This is taken by the owner to Jerusalem and eaten there. It gave Jews an opportunity to spend time in the Holy City, contribute to its economy, and learn from its masters.

Year 2 – same as year one.

Year 3—in addition to terumah and maser reshon, a portion of the crop was separated and given to the poor, known as maaser ani (this was in addition to many other contributions made to the poor from each farm.)

Year 4 – same as years 1-2.

Year 5 – same as years 1-2, 4.

Year 6 – same as year 3.

Year 7 – This was a sabbatical year, shemitah, in which no plowing or planting was permitted, and no tithes were given. That year the field was open to everybody to enjoy.

Now, on the day before Passover of year four and year seven, every owner must make sure that he has delivered all the tithes of the past three years to their proper destination—to the Priests, the Levites, and the poor. Then, on the last day of Passover of the 4th and 7th years, the farmer recites a special declaration found in this week’s portion.

Let us review the text in the Torah:

 כִּי תְכַלֶּה לַעְשֵׂר אֶת-כָּל-מַעְשַׂר תְּבוּאָתְךָ, בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁלִישִׁת—שְׁנַת הַמַּעֲשֵׂר: וְנָתַתָּה לַלֵּוִי, לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה, וְאָכְלוּ בִשְׁעָרֶיךָ, וְשָׂבֵעו. וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹקֶיךָ בִּעַרְתִּי הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִן-הַבַּיִת, וְגַם נְתַתִּיו לַלֵּוִי וְלַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה, כְּכָל-מִצְוָתְךָ, אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתָנִי: לֹא-עָבַרְתִּי מִמִּצְו‍ֹתֶיךָ, וְלֹא שָׁכָחְתִּי. לֹא-אָכַלְתִּי בְאֹנִי מִמֶּנּוּ, וְלֹא-בִעַרְתִּי מִמֶּנּוּ בְּטָמֵא, וְלֹא-נָתַתִּי מִמֶּנּוּ, לְמֵת; שָׁמַעְתִּי, בְּקוֹל ה' אֱלֹקי--עָשִׂיתִי, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתָנִי. הַשְׁקִיפָה מִמְּעוֹן קָדְשְׁךָ מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבָרֵךְ אֶת-עַמְּךָ אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֵת הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה לָנוּ--כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. [1]

"You shall say before G-d your Lord: I have removed all the sacred portions from my house. I have given the appropriate portions to the Levite, to the convert, to the orphan and to the widow, following all the commandments You prescribed to us. I have not violated your commandments, and have not forgotten anything… I have listened to the voice of the Lord my G-d; I have done everything You commanded me…”

Basically, G-d wants us to verbally declare that we have done everything right. We distributed all the produce we were required to. We tell G-d bluntly that we perfectly implemented all of His commandments on this matter.

This is, no doubt, an interesting mitzvah. G-d wants us to compliment ourselves. He wants us to declare emphatically: G-d! I did it, and I did it well!

But why? He knows we did it. We know we did it. What is the point of making this official verbal declaration?

We have no other precedent for this in Judaism—to literally compliment ourselves before the Almighty!

This Is a Confession?

What is stranger is that this recitation has a name in all of Talmudic literature: Vidui Maaser, “the Tithing Confession.” Yet virtually, this recitation is the furthest thing from a confession. A “vidui,” a confession, in its classic sense, means that we admit our guilt and ask for forgiveness. We have in Judaism a number of confessional prayers (most of them will be recited on Yom Kippur, the day of confession and atonement), and they all share the same message: Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, debarnu dofi… "We are guilty; we have dealt treacherously; we have stolen; we spoke falsely, etc." We confess for the sins and errors that we committed in one form or another, we express remorse and we resolve to change in the future.

Yet in this case, we encounter a “confession” of a diametrically opposite nature. Imagine you approach your wife and say: My dear, I want to make a confession to you. Your wife’s ears perk up to hear what you did this time. You continue:

“I want to confess to you today, that I am a wonderful, accomplished, flawless, magnificent, incredible, sensitive, kind, caring, handsome, and passionate husband and father. I have fulfilled all of my duties; I have been loyal to you with every fiber of my being; I have dutifully always fulfilled all my responsibilities; I forgot nothing, I did not transgress; I have been faithful and dutiful, committed and moral. Alas, I am the perfect man.”

Well, call this guy any name you’d like, but for G-d’s sake, it is not a confession!...

Yet, astoundingly, this is exactly what we do with the “tithe confession.” Listen to the words: "You shall say before G-d your Lord: I have removed all the sacred portions from my house. I have given the appropriate portions to the Levite, to the convert, to the orphan, and to the widow, following all the commandments You prescribed to us. I have not violated your commandments, and have not forgotten anything… I have listened to the voice of the Lord my G-d; I have done everything You commanded me.”[2]

And Judaism calls this a confession, a “vidui”![3]

Perhaps if more Jews would know that this is “confession,” we would not leave this art to the Catholics; the synagogue would have long lines every day of Jews coming to confess, telling us that they are absolutely perfect, impeccable, flawless, and faultless.

A Catholic boy and a Jewish boy were talking and the Catholic boy said, "My priest knows more than your rabbi." The Jewish boy said, "Of course he does, you tell him everything."

Poor Christians! They think confession is sharing all the negative stuff. Nonsense! Confession is saying how perfect you are. “I have fulfilled all of your commandments.”

I’m Awesome

Yet it is in this very mitzvah of “tithing confession” that we encounter an incredible truth: It is important for people to verbalize, from time to time, how good they are, how beautiful they are, how powerful they are. Not in a generic, meaningless, and foolish way, and certainly not in a haughty way, but rather in a very specific, directed, and focused manner. There is always one area, one aspect of your life in which you are a success story. And you need to be able to see it and verbalize it. In this above law, the Jew specifies that as far as tithing is concerned, he has done a magnificent job.

And this is called “confession.” Do you know why? See how the Sages, 1800 years before the development of many psychological schools of healing and therapy, taught us this potent truth: Only when I believe that I am good, I’m capable of regretting my mistakes. If I believe that I am just a dirty old rat, I can’t really regret my wrongdoings, because I see them as inevitable. When I appreciate my potential for greatness, I can hold myself accountable for my errors.

Genuine confession requires not only acknowledging and confronting a mistake; it also requires a belief that you are essentially good, that you are capable of being good, and that in some areas you are exceptionally good.

If my garment is raddled with stains, and you pour some orange juice on it, it won’t bother me. I may not even notice it. But if I am wearing a fresh, clean, and beautiful suit and you spill the chocolate mousse with vanilla on it, I will take note. If I consider my soul dirty and filthy, I can’t even take note of my inappropriate and immoral behaviors, of my hurtful words, of my toxic thoughts; they fit right in with my distorted self. Only when I appreciate my innate dignity, majesty, and purity, can I begin to notice and feel bad about all that which tarnishes and eclipses such a beautiful life.

Have you ever heard a couple argue in the following manner? She: Darling, you are making a mistake again.

He: Of course! I am always wrong; you are always right. I am the dumb, stupid, bad, husband, who is always dead wrong. You are the perfect wife. You are never ever wrong.

Well, we all know that no woman is pleased with this acknowledgment. Because it is meaningless and cynical. Whenever anybody says, “I am always wrong,” it means “I am never wrong; you are just impossible to please.” Whenever anybody says, “you are always right,” it means “you are never right.”

Sincere confession means that I am sometimes right. But now I am wrong. I am not always wrong; it is now that I am wrong.

There is a verse in the Song of Songs: “I am dark and beautiful.”[4] These are the two interconnected sides necessary for all personal growth: I am dark, I may have succumbed to darkness, but I am inherently beautiful. Hence, 1) I regret what I did. I know that it did not befit me; I am so much better. I want to fix it, because this behavior compromises my inherent beauty.[5] 2) I acknowledge that I had the power not to do it; it was not inevitable. I was capable of choosing otherwise and I regret my wrongdoing. 3) I know that I possess the power to fix it for the future. I am not a victim. [6]

To truly confess a mistake or a sin requires that I can sometimes tell G-d: I am good! I am great! I have done exactly what You wanted. I have not transgressed. And because I am capable of doing things correctly I can sincerely regret my actions when I fail to do so. The tithing declaration is called confession because it enables and gives meaning to all other confessions of repentance.

My Boy, You’re Great

This truth is vital for education—in the home and in the classroom.

Your child comes home with a report card; in some subjects, he or she did great, in others—he performed poorly. We instinctively tend to focus on the negative, on what is missing, and try to fix it.

There is a more effective approach. Focus on your child’s success and strengths. When you receive the report card and see what he is lacking in, don’t say: "My dear angel, I see that you need help with this subject. How can I help you? What is bothering you? You are such a good boy, why are you failing in this area?"

Instead say this: "My dear, I see you are excelling in your reading skills, in science and math. I see you got an A-plus for cleanliness and organization. I see you scored really high on your skill for co-operation with friends and sportsmanship. It is obvious that when you put your mind to something, you are immensely successful at it. Now how can we apply these lessons to other areas of your education?"

Your child might be lacking in a certain behavior at home. Point out to him all the things he is doing right at home. “I notice how well-mannered you are when you eat; I noticed earlier how considerate you were when your brother asked you for the juice; I noticed how sensitive you were to your baby sister. This shows how much kindness you have in your heart.”

What did you accomplish? You made your child feel like a success story. You accentuated what is right with him or her, not what is wrong with them. And you did it not in a patronizing way (you are such an angel; you are a tzaddik; you are the best kid in the world—all this is a lie. Your child is not an angel, he is not a tzaddik, and he is not the best child in the world. And your child knows it is untrue!), but in a specific, genuine and real way.

You showed him what is great about his life. How good and special and capable he or she is. Now, he has a standard for himself that will 1) allow him to appreciate why his past behavior was unbefitting and inspire him to do better. 2) You will make him believe that he is truly capable of doing better.[7]

Singing My Sins?

Here is a story:

The Baal Shem Tov once visited a town in which the people complained that their cantor behaved strangely. It seems that on Yom Kippur, he would chant the Al Chet, confession of sins, in a merry melody, rather than in a more appropriately somber tune. When questioned by the Baal Shem Tov, the cantor explained:

"Rebbe, a king has many servants who serve him. Some of them prepare the royal meals, others serve the food, while others place the royal crown on the king’s head, and yet others are in charge of running the affairs of the country, etc. Each of them rejoices in his work and the privilege he has to serve and to be so close to the king.

“Now the palace also has a janitor, charged with the duty of removing the rubbish and filth from the palace. The janitor looks and deals with filth all day. He approaches it, gathers it, and removes it. Do you think that he should be depressed because he is looking at dirt all day? No! He is happy because he is also serving the king. He is removing the dirt from the king’s palace, ensuring that the palace is beautiful! It is not the dirt he is focused on, it is on the King’s palace and its beauty that he is occupied with."

“When a Jew sins, he amasses some dirt on his soul. When he is confessing his sins, it is not the sins, the guilt, the darkness, and the negativity, that he is focused on; it is the holiness and beauty of his soul that he is focused on. He is removing the layers of dirt that are eclipsing the soul; he is allowing his inner light to shine in its full glory. Is that not a reason to sing and rejoice?"

The Baal Shem Tov was deeply moved by this response because it captures one of his essential ideas. While other approaches in Jewish ethics focused often on the negativity of sin and its dire consequences in this world and even more in the next world, the Baal Shem Tov and the teachings of Chassidus focus primarily on the infinite holiness of every soul and heart.

“Just as when you look at the earth you can never estimate how many treasures are hidden beneath its crust, so when you look at a Jew you can never estimate how many treasures lie beneath his or her crust,” the Baal Shem Tov once said.

This was one of the most important ideas of the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760)—whose birthday we celebrate on the 18th of Elul: (18 Elul is the birthday of the two luminaries—the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement, and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, founder of Chabad (1745-1812). It is also the yartzeit of the great Jewish thinker, the Maharal of Prague (in 1609), a great-great-great-grandfather of the Alter Rebbe.)

When you encounter a fellow Jew—and that includes yourself—who may have many a blemish, and committed many a sin and mistake, don’t tell him how bad he is; tell him how good he is and how good he can be; how much G-d loves him and needs him, and then he automatically he will want to remove the clouds blacking his inner sunlight.

It is interesting, that till today in most Jewish communities the confession is done with a melody: “Ashamanu, Bagadnu…” “Veal kulam Eloka Selechos…” Our confession of sins is inspired by our tithe confession.

An Exercise

So I return to my original plea: I want each of you to make a confession today. Tell someone—your rabbi, your friend, your spouse—something very positive about yourself. One positive thing about your soul and your life. Something you are proud of. Not in an arrogant way, but as a “confession.” Because when you realize how good and capable you are, you might ask yourself the question, why I’m I not living up to my potential? [8]

_____________

[1] Deuteronomy 26:12-15

[2] Deuteronomy 26:13-14

[3] The Sforno (the Italian Rabbi, physician, and philosopher Rabbi Ovadya Sforno, 1470-1550) in his commentary on this verse explains, that the ceremony is called "vidui" because there is an implicit tragedy that hovers over the entire ritual. We testify to the fact that “I have removed the sacred portions from my house." Why is this entire house cleaning necessary? Who should really be receiving these portions? Before the Jews made the Golden Calf, the Divine service was the duty of the firstborn in each family. As a result of the sin of the Golden Calf, the privilege went to the tribe of Levi. If we would have not sinned, then, the tithe could remain in our own home, given to the oldest of the family. Now, however, our homes cannot accept the holiness. We have to remove it from our home. This fits well with what the Sforno writes elsewhere, that if not for the Golden Calf, there would be no Holy Temple; for every home would be a Temple, an abode for the Divine presence. Now, there is a need for a spiritual epicenter in lieu of our homes. For this, we confess.

The Sforno uses this concept to explain why the word used here in the subsequent prayer is “Hashkifa” [look down] which denotes a negative gaze (as in Genesis 19:28 and Exodus 14:24). Why are we invoking this term in our prayer? It is because we are confessing the sin of the Golden Calf.

[4] Song of Songs 1:5. Cf. Likkutei Torah Shir Hashirim on this verse

[5] For an elaboration of this point, see Sichas 18 Elul 5712 (1952).

[6] For an elaboration of these last two points, see Likkutei Sichos vol. 30 Miketz.

[7] Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twersky in his book of Chassidic tales relates a story about his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, “The Rusty Penny,” which expresses this same idea.

[8] The idea about “vidui maaser” is based on a sermon presented by Rabbi Josef B. Soloveitchik (“Bris Avos,” published in his book “Chamash Derashos.”) The second half of the sermon on an address I heard from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbos Parshas Acharei 5748 (1988).

Please leave your comment below!

    Essay Ki Savo/Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur

    Rabbi YY Jacobson
    • September 3, 2020
    • |
    • 14 Elul 5780
    • |
    • 4196 views
    • Comment

    Dedicated by Baruch Yosef Markoff, in the loving memory of his great grandfather, Avrohom ben Avrohom (Abraham Newman), for the Yartzeit, Elul 15

    Class Summary:

    I want to do something ambitious with this essay: I want to bring back confessions to Judaism. People attribute confession to Catholicism, as the job of the priests. I believe it is time to bring it back to our people. And I am going to ask each of you that during the day you should make at least one confession to a loved one.

    This week’s Torah portion, Ki Savo, discusses an interesting law known as “Vidui Maaser,” “the Tithing Confession.” Every few years, a farmer would recite a special declaration proclaiming that he distributed all the necessary charities from his produce. What is so strange is that this recitation is virtually the furthest thing from a confession. A “vedu,” a confession, in its classic sense, is that we admit our guilt and ask for forgiveness. "We are guilty; we have dealt treacherously; we have stolen; we spoke falsely, etc." We confess for the sins and errors that we committed; we express remorse and we resolve to change in the future. Yet in this case, we encounter a “confession” of the opposite nature. We compliment ourselves! We tell G-d how good we are.

    Imagine a man comes to his wife and says: My dear, I want to make a confession. Your wife’s ears perk up to hear what did you do now. You continue: I am the most perfect and awesome man!

    It is here we discover what is a real confession in Judaism. It was one of the great novel ideas of the Baal Shem Tov. It is also the reason there was a cantor who would sing a merry song while confessing his sins.

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