Naso: Guilty? Take the “Fifth” and Confess.

Many Jews consider confession to be a once-a-year religious obligation. On the “Day of Atonement,” they confess their sins to G-d, privately and/or by joining in the communal “Ashamru” (“We have sinned”) liturgy.

Such an understanding of the role of “confession” does not comport with Judaism.

 In this week’s Torah portion, Naso, G-d instructs Moses:

Speak to the Children of Israel: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith, yes, faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done.  He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth…. (Numbers 5:5-7.)

These verses, which I refer to as the Jewish “Fifth” (Numbers 5), show that the obligation to confess one’s wrongs/transgressions is constant and on-going.  This is, of course, the exact opposite of the American “Fifth” (Amendment), which permits an accused to avoid self-incrimination. 

Moreover, Judaism generally requires that the confession of wrong toward a fellow man must be made to the wronged party, not to G-d (even though, as the verses also make clear, any transgression to a person is also a transgression against G-d’s will).  Indeed, how could one make the required restitution to the wronged person and include a 20% penalty without explaining why? 

We all wrong others frequently, whether intentionally or inadvertently, especially those closest to us.  Consequently, if we do not frequently confess our transgressions to them, this is itself an additional transgression!  But even if we do not confess to others, out of fear of embarrassment or loss, we should nevertheless confess to ourselves – out loud.  “Words that are in the heart are no words.” (Kiddushin 49b). That is, thoughts that remain silently “in the heart” are as if non-existant.

The Bible also shows that G-d treats sinners who confess differently from those who do not.  When King Saul sinned and tried to defend his actions, G-d dethroned him (I Samuel 15:13-23). But when King David sinned and then confessed, he was punished but then forgiven (II Samuel 12:13-14).  We also know from the American legal system that those who confess and sincerely repent receive lighter sentences than those who do not.

Why are so many of us unaware of our on-going confession obligation?

I believe that the reasons include:

1.     The Jewish weekday service contains explicit confession, both for individual transgressions and for communal transgressions.  However, these prayers are omitted on Shabbat and holidays, so Jews who limit their synagogue attendance to these days are unaware of them as core Jewish thought and practice. 

2.     They have never been taught this obligation, either generally, or as part of formal Torah/Talmud study, and have not studied the Psalms. 

3.     Non-Jewish religious culture emphasizes and values freedom, not responsibility; validation of individual feelings, not concern for those of others.  As creatures of our environment, our sense of accountability to others for our improper (albeit “legal”) actions is weak. 

Confession is “good for the soul,” a sentiment expressed in Psalms 32 and 119.  The obligation to confess our transgressions prompts introspection.  It cultivates humility.  It should give us pause before transgressing, knowing that we will have to acknowledge and take responsibility for our actions.   In short, the obligation to confess builds and helps us maintain character. 

And, it paves the way for forgiveness, by man and G-d.  “Whoever commits a sin and is conscience- stricken, is forgiven for all his sins.”  (Berachot 12b).

Confession is also, quite clearly, a path to spirituality, and isn’t this one of the main things we hope for in prayer, and in life?

It may seem counterintuitive, but we should be thankful for the obligation to confess.  This isn’t merely my opinion, it is embedded in the language of the Torah and of the Jewish people.  “I thank” and “I admit it” are exactly the same in Hebrew: מודה אני 

Shabbat shalom. 

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