The Complete Confession
The time from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur is a time of reflection and introspection. It’s a time to look back at the past year and take stock of our actions. It’s a time when we are meant to think about what we have done or have not done, and make amends.
From about a week before Rosh Hashanah, Ashkenazi Jews begin saying the Selichos prayers (prayers of confession and supplication to G-d). Sephardic Jews begin a full month before, and both continue up to and including Yom Kippur. The central motif of the Selichos prayers is the vidui confessional prayer, which lists all of our sins (and those of the whole nation), alphabetically.
We’re taught to notice what we’ve done wrong and recognize our failures while we’re still quite young. From an early age, we already absorb the message that we’ve messed up, or hurt somebody, or sinned in some way against G-d or man, and there’s a lot that needs to be done to make it better. It is important to be able to acknowledge what you have done wrong, and move through a process of forgiveness or atonement to be able to make amends, but often we can get stuck in those feelings of failure. All too often, we spend too much time in our lives focusing on the negative – in ourselves – and not enough looking at the positive.
Some time ago, I asked a group of people to share their one best character attribute. It was terribly hard. Everyone umm-ed and fudged around the answer. It was fascinating to see how much time everyone needed just to think about what might be their best character trait. Clearly this was not something they had thought about before. (It then took even longer before most people were ready to say it aloud.) If I had asked what their worst flaw is, they would have had the answer ready on the tips of their tongues.
Last year, a friend sent me this alternative prayer of confession. It was written by HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, who was the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa and the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine (as Israel then was), until his death in 1935. There are some prayer books which include it as part of their liturgy, but overall it’s not very well known.
Rav Kook was renowned for his positive eye, so perhaps it is not so surprising that he composed an alternative, more positive vidui. He termed it ‘The Completed Confession’:
I found it very moving. It is true that we have sinned, we have lied, and we have stolen, as the traditional version of vidui begins, but it is also true that we have loved, we have cried with others, and we have repaid others. In a comment to this new liturgy, Rav Kook notes
“Therefore, since there is a good argument that that confessing one’s sins will lead to improving his character … there is an equally good reason for confessing one’s good deeds, in order to feel inner joy about them, and thus strengthen his determination to continue along the path of G-d throughout his life”
You’ll notice that Rav Kook’s more positive prayer does not try to make the one reciting it sound like a saint. We ‘sometimes’ did the right thing. We tried. We ‘tasted books’, meaning that we began trying to learn Torah although we didn’t immerse in it all the way.
Rav Kook did not skip out the traditional confession of sins, either, even though he recited this prayer along side it. We acknowledge that we have a lot to improve and a long way to go, but we strengthen ourselves for the journey by reminding ourselves that we’ve already done some good.
When I was a child, my grandmother often told my sister and I ‘You’ll catch more flies with honey than you will with vinegar’. Of course, she was usually saying this in response to us fighting over something or other. Being somewhat contrary as well as scientifically minded at the time, I used to wonder what it meant that you’d catch even more flies with rotten meat.
However, her point was a good one – that you’ll be more successful by being softly spoken and gentle than by shouting or speaking harshly. We should remember that for ourselves too, this Yom Kippur.