The first part of parshat Aharei Mot is a description of the atonement ritual for Yom Kippur conducted by the kohen gadol (high priest). In the Torah, the focus of Yom Kippur is to cleanse the sanctuary of the impurity generated by the people’s sins. Without this ritual, this sin, this impurity, would become an invisible but real cosmic “gunk” that would clog up the works, interfering with the communication between God and Israel.
There is very little here that we recognize as being part of our Yom Kippur, only:
T’anu et nafshoteihem — you shall practice self-denial, which the rabbis understand to mean fasting, and V’hitvada alav et kol avonot b’nei Yisrael — the kohen gadol shall confess all the sins of the Israelites.
Fasting and confession (vidui) are central to our observance of Yom Kippur as we strive for reconciliation with God and with other people.
Now, confession seems to be quite popular these days. Some public figure gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar, with his zipper undone, or in some other compromising position, and he issues a statement “taking responsibility.” He apologizes for what happened, although in many cases it seems that what he is really sorry about is getting caught. And then he confesses that he didn’t mean it, he couldn’t help himself, or, as if this were an acceptable excuse, he was drunk.
By the Torah’s standards, this is no confession. It’s true that there are cases in which a person really can’t help behaving badly — someone threatens his life or his family or even holds a gun to his head to force him to do something wrong, or he is in the grip of severe mental illness or psychological compulsion. However, these cases are rare, and a confession that attempts to deflect responsibility — and, not incidentally, punishment — is no confession.
Confession requires more than words — it demands action. As the Talmud in Ta’anit puts it, “Rabbi Adda bar Ahavah said: A man who confesses after committing a transgression but does not change his ways is like the one who persists in holding a dead reptile in his hand — even if he immerses himself in all the waters of the world, his immersions will not cleanse him. But once he throws the reptile away and then immerses himself in no more than 40 se’ah [a measure of volume] of water, the immersion is effective in cleansing him, as it is said, ‘He who confesses and gives [his faults] up will find mercy (Mishlei 28:13).’”
The late Israeli master teacher Nehama Leibowitz, citing a commentary by 19th-century German Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, explains it this way: It should be borne in mind that the confession ordained by the Torah does not consist of a confession of sins made to another person; it is not even a confession made to God, but as its grammatical reflexive form implies — hitvadu — it is a confession in which the sinner makes himself aware of his sin.
And here is what Rabbi Hirsch wrote: That we should not conceal our past misdemeanors from ourselves, but regard them with an unprejudiced eye, without extenuation. We should admit to ourselves that not only should we have acted differently but that it was in our power to have acted differently.
“I had it in my power to act differently” is the beginning of true self-knowledge — and the first step in changing for the better.