The Purifying Power of Confession (Vayikra)

By Reb David

Before ritual prayer, ancient Israelites journeyed spiritually by ritual offerings of animals, grains and oil. For an agricultural society riding the Mediterranean cycle of rain and drought, these offerings were the currency of life itself. Giving God one’s most prized possessions – livestock and food – was a big step up from human sacrifice (banned after the Binding of Isaac). Starting with this week’s portion (Vayikra), the Book of Leviticus recounts how our ancestors sacrificed physical possessions to divine service, and how their example can be relevant to us.


Some 3,500 years ago, our ancestors cared deeply about ritual purity, believing that sacrifice could purge “sin.” Rather than sacrifice oneself to restore purity, one offered livestock with value: a bull, goat or bird (depending on the “sin” and one’s means) took a person’s place on the altar. Sin offerings had a quality of “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Thankfully our sense of God has evolved. Most moderns don’t imagine that God will strike us down for misdeeds or that we can protect ourselves by sacrificing a proxy in our stead. Spiritually speaking, however, we still need ways to purify ourselves: Yom Kippur comes each year, but it’s important to refine ourselves emotionally, mentally and spiritually every day. Our ancestors knew this, too, so their day-to-day rituals open a window onto lessons that we can make meaningful to our own times.

Our ancestors understood a misdeed to occur when we wrongly act or fail to act, but guilt, says Torah, happens when become aware of it (Lev. 5:2-4). It’s telling that Torah speaks of guilt rather than remorse, which is sincere regret. Guilt, by contrast, is a feeling about ourselves, a sense that not only what we did is wrong but also that we ourselves are wrong. Guilt can be powerful, sometimes a vital prod to make amends, but taken too far guilt can be damaging and even counter-productive.

Ritual sacrifice could purify remorse, but guilt required more. To purify guilt, our ancestors recorded the idea of “confession,” literally speaking our guilt to another (Lev. 5:5), with genuine intention to release hurt and change behavior. The Latin term “confess” combines con (with) and fiteri (admit): we “confess” by “fessing up,” speaking our admission with another. In Hebrew, the term הִתְוַדָּה (hit’vadah) has much the same meaning and also a sense of interiority and reflexivity, as if we speak a confession with our entire selves.

In ancient days, this was the way to purge guilt: only after heartfelt confession, speaking our entire selves – pouring out our hearts – could sacrifice and restitution restore purity. For a civilization so focused on physical ritual, our ancestors’ wisdom about the interiority of guilt is profound. They knew that guilt needed to be purified, and they knew that this purification could not occur silently, alone or in secret. The inner darkness of guilt can’t be brought into light unless it is brought into the open – spoken with another from the heart.

Today we need no altar or physical sacrifice to purge guilt. Words may not be enough – often we must act to heal hurts and change behavior – but our  ancestors knew that words are a necessary start. Each of us can seek out a spiritual advisor, close friend, trained counselor or someone else we trust, to share and unburden our hearts. Spiritual direction (Hashpa’ah in Jewish practice) is an especially helpful path: in all that we do and feel – even guilt – we can ask how holiness calls to us from the flow of our lives, then learn to open ourselves more deeply to hearing and heeding that call. (TBE congregants wanting more information about Hashpa’ah can speak with any of our clergy.)

This is the call to purify ourselves, every day. Not physical sacrifice but offerings of heart, action and speech are the modern way – in the prophet Hosea’s words, God wants our hearts, not our burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6). Even so, we can thank our ancestors for setting us on a path of converting guilt and misdeeds into purity and light. Inspired by their example, may we summon the inner courage bring into light whatever heartfelt words of contrition we need to say – and then make amends where we can – so we can keep our inner flames burning bright.

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