I Didn’t Do It

From: Marcus in Delaware

Dear Rabbi,

On Yom Kippur there is a very long list of transgressions that we are supposed to confess about. But I don’t understand why I’m being dictated what I’ve done wrong. Anyway, most of those things don’t even apply to me. I’ve never stolen, had an affair or killed anyone. Forgive me for saying this, but isn’t this taking things a bit too far?

Dear Marcus,

Your point is well taken, and a lot of people ask the very same question.

However, it is important to realize that while this part of the Yom Kippur service is “required reading”, it is meant only as a “partial” list of things that a person may have done wrong, and should be used as an outline of the type of things needing improvement. A person can and should add to the list things that one knows he’s done wrong but are not specifically mentioned. In this way, the “confession” or vidui is not being dictated to you, but is rather a list of suggestions that you are intended to personalize and tailor-fit.

Regarding not being “guilty” of the charges, even if a person has never explicitly transgressed any of the things listed there, it is still possible that he has done some of them in one way or another. For example, even if you’ve never outright stolen, you might have used something without permission, or subtly misled others. Both are considered a form of “theft” in Judaism. Similarly, even if you’ve never actually had an affair, owning-up to illicit relations can include desiring and fantasizing in ways that may be very real. “Merely” embarrassing someone to the point that the blood rushes to his face, or worse yet causing him to become white in the face, is a form of bloodshed “tantamount” to murder in Judaism. Our Sages thus taught (Baba Metzia 59a), “Better one throw himself into a fiery furnace than embarrass someone in public”.

Based on this, with some effort and strategic repentance, most people should be able to find some way in which they need improvement for everything enumerated in that list. Still, what about the truly righteous who are far from transgressing? As far as they are concerned, they scrutinize themselves much more than most people could imagine. For example, Rabbi Israel Meir Cohen, the Chofetz Chaim, was once heard weeping over a list of his “wrong‑doings”. It later became known that he lamented over not being able to account for how he spent a particular five minutes of the past year.

Another beautiful message can be learned from the Ponavitcher Rav who was once heard confessing intensely on Yom Kippur. His students, unable to believe that he was actually guilty of what he was saying, asked for an explanation. The Rabbi said that one must not think only of one’s own fate, but for the spiritual welfare of every Jew as well. Doing teshuva in this way helps others, and also spares them embarrassment as the entire community repents together. We also see this in the Kol Nidre service before Yom Kippur when the community announces its willingness to pray together with the transgressors. Thus, saying this formula of teshuva is important even if it doesn’t apply to one personally since it’s a way of connecting to the community and helping others do teshuva.

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