Last Sunday, the NY Times’ ethicist column raised an interesting dilemma. A doctor was treating a man for terrible headaches, and the doctor asked him if he were under any stress, and then assured the patient that what he said would remain in the room. With that assurance, the patient confessed to participating in an armed robbery for which an innocent man would soon be convicted. And it turned out, with that confession, the patient’s headaches disappeared. The doctor however was stuck with a dilemma: does he report the crime, despite having given his word of confidentiality, or does he help to redeem an innocent man? For now, notice the effects of the confession on the patient’s health and well-being. Are you surprised that the man’s headaches went away once he confessed?
For me, no.
I believe that’s because embedded into our Jewish genes, is the urge toward confession and taking responsibility. That’s what I love so much about Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement. We confess: Ashamnu… We are guilty. In my house, if there is some responsibility someone can take for something going wrong – both Olya and I will leap at the opportunity to say, “It must have been me…” A congregant told me that when he gets ready to shave in the morning, he knows whether he has to fix something he has done. Meanwhile, Sam has always complained that it seems ridiculous, absurd and just plain bad form that we Jews wait until Yom Kippur to do this confession – this vidui. Better, he has argued, that we should do it more often.
In our torah portion this week, Naso, we find these verses: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward another person, thus breaking faith with God, and that person realizes their guilt, (ash’ma hanefesh hi – from the same word as ashamnu) the person shall confess the wrong (hitvadu – from the same word as vidui) done and make restitution. (Bemidbar 5:5-7)
Here we are in the spring, and the Torah offers us another opportunity to look the soul’s need to confess when we – either man or woman – realize we have committed a wrong against another person, and we are supposed to make it right, with interest. We’re not supposed to wait until Yom Kippur, we’re supposed to do it as soon as we realize we’ve done the wrong, and we have instructions about what to do to fix it. How great is that?
For many of us – as witnessed in so many pieces of art, commerce and news stories, let alone our own lives – true confession is hard. We’re ashamed of what we did. It’s hard to admit we’ve hurt someone else. We’re afraid of getting into trouble. We’re afraid to face the consequences.
But in the end, what does non-confession do for our souls? For those of us with consciences, and I think that’s really most of us, when we’ve hurt someone else, we know it. And we feel it. I reach a whole new level of anxiety that doesn’t go away until I’ve made it right. I’m betting most of you have similar reactions.
I imagine it as a layer of shmutz—Yiddish for dirt – on our souls. And I know how uncomfortable I can be when I feel like I have a layer of grime on my body… On my soul, it’s almost unbearable.
If we were to imagine our souls as the vessels that hold our core values – truth, beauty, love, justice, whatever yours are – and the vessel keeps getting dirtier and dirtier, how long before we finally can’t see what’s inside anymore? How much longer before we can’t remember how to live that life of truth, and love, and beauty and justice?
So there’s value in keeping our souls clean, translucent, pure. How do we do it? We confess! (According to Rashi, the great medieval commentator of Torah, the great new thing—the hiddush—in this week’s portion about this reminder of our responsibility to fix the wrongs we do is the confession itself.) And then, of course, we fix what we can fix.
We recognize the humanity of those we’ve hurt, and we recognize that we too are among the ones hurt – because when our vessel gets cloudy, murky, dirty – then our connection to the Divine – to our best selves – is more tenuous. Because it’s the ability to acknowledge our humanity, with foibles and frailties, and a shadow side, it’s that ability to admit it that allows us to grow. If we can’t see those sides of ourselves, if we try to bury them from ourselves, then they come back and bite us – and we in turn bite others – somewhere else.
The book some of us are reading as a group—Mindsight—tells the story of the author completely losing it with his children at a crepe place in a mall. His son wanted a crepe, his daughter said she didn’t, and then when they were sitting down, the daughter wanted a bite. The son refused, feeling like she had had her opportunity. The kids were fine with their interaction, but the dad lost it: he wanted his son to be the good, generous kid and share, despite everything else. It was not pretty, but it was also not unusual. It took until he had had time to calm down, letting his lizard brain cool and his fight instinct fade with the dissipation of his adrenaline, to recognize how over the top he had been, and even longer to recognize where his rage had come from. His Crepes of Wrath explain beautifully how the part of confession that lets us look more closely into why we react as we do is so important. I’m pretty sure if we went around the room, each of us could tell our own Crepes of Wrath story, and the key question is whether we are willing to do the confession and analysis and fixing that takes us to a better place and better relationships.
Confession has another vital aspect – when we can ask for help. Even when it’s hard. Think of the courage it takes to admit to a loved one that you’re standing on the abyss of hopelessness, and you need a hand. Think of the courage to tell your children you can’t really see well enough to drive at night anymore. Or the courage to tell your parents it was you who totalled the car. Think of how relieved you have been when your loved one finally did ask, so that you could reach out.
Sam was right – it’s ridiculous that we should wait for Yom Kippur to work on ourselves. And our tradition agrees. We have our thrice daily prayers traditional Jews say, in which we ask to draw down the wisdom in the universe, recognize our own power to turn in a different direction, and ask for forgiveness and being held accountable, with the underlying premise that we are asking for forgiveness for specific wrongs we have committed.
We also have the bedtime Shema. How many of you say it with your kids or grandchildren? How many of you say it with your spouse or partner? Or even to yourself?
The bedtime ritual doesn’t require Hebrew or a prayer book, but our attention. At my house, we used to ask 5 questions: one thing you enjoyed today, one thing you’re proud of, 5 things you are grateful for for today, whether there were hurt feelings given or received, and one thing you’re looking forward to tomorrow. We asked our questions to refocus the day, giving space for gratitude and a moment to look at how we’ve hurt others, so that we could develop a plan to deal with it tomorrow – and relieve anxiety and thereby make for a good night’s sleep. It also allowed us to look at how others have hurt us – and whether we can let go of it or need to address it. If we can do this, then we have the opportunity to start the next day with a pure soul, free of one layer of shmutz. So that we can truly say in the morning – Elohai Neshama shenatata bi t’hora hi. The soul you have given me is pure.
I encourage everyone to say the bedtime Shema – some version that works for you, and as soon as you realize you’ve hurt someone, listen to your heart, confess and fix it. And when Yom Kippur comes, we’ll be able to spend less time on on Atonement and more time on At-one-ment.