How do we move on in life?

How do we respond when we are confronted with our own moral failings and misdeeds? Do we acknowledge openly what we have done wrong and take full responsibility? Or do we withdraw into our defenses, deflecting our wrongdoing, turning a blind eye and maintaining the façade? As it turns out, how we answer that question can change both the past and the future.

On March 4, 1987, then-US president Ronald Reagan addressed the American people from the Oval Office about the Iran-Contra scandal. It involved senior government officials secretly facilitating the sale of arms to Iran, which was the subject of an arms embargo.

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Taking full responsibility for his role in the affair, Reagan famously said: “Now, what should happen when you make a mistake is this: You take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then you move on. That’s the healthiest way to deal with a problem….

You know, by the time you reach my age, you’ve made plenty of mistakes. And if you’ve lived your life properly – so, you learn. You put things in perspective. You pull your energies together. You change. You go forward.”

Unfortunately, this honest, unflinching admission of wrongdoing is often the exception rather than the rule. From Cambridge Analytica to the Panama Papers, Watergate, Harvey Weinstein and Lance Armstrong, public figures have been famously reluctant to admit the error of their ways.

It’s a practice that goes all the way back to the beginning of human history.

When God confronts Adam after he has eaten from the forbidden tree, his response is to avoid accountability: “The woman whom you gave to me, she gave from the tree to me and I ate it.” Rather than accept responsibility and acknowledge his wrongdoing, Adam’s first instinct is to shift the blame.

In his commentary on this verse, the Sforno contrasts Adam’s response with that of King David – who, when confronted by the Prophet Natan with regard to his sin with Batsheva, immediately responds: “I have sinned to God.” This is how we should respond when we realize that we have done wrong.

In this week’s Torah portion, Nasso, we learn the mitzva of confession. The verse states simply: “If a man or a woman commits any sin… they shall confess their sin that they committed.”

The Rambam, in his Laws of Repentance, defines the process of repentance and sets out its various components: regretting the mistakes of the past, desisting from that wrongdoing in the present, and resolving not to return to this course of action in the future. But there’s a fourth element, no less crucial to the repentance process – confession. Vidui in Hebrew, it is simply a verbal expression to God of our errors of the past and our resolve for the future, an acknowledgment of full responsibility and accountability for our actions. And to confess requires real courage and honesty.

WHY IS verbal confession central to repentance? The Sefer Hahinuch emphasizes the element of transparency – that God knows all and sees all, and that by verbalizing our wrongdoing, we are acknowledging that our lives are an open book before our Creator.

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik has a different take. He compares vidui to the mitzva of reciting the Shema and the mitzva of prayer to God. These mitzvot have deep internal, emotional, spiritual and intellectual components, and yet all are made concrete and tangible through verbal expression, which strengthens, gives form, shapes and makes impactful the deep internal processes taking place.

So to explain, the internal process of the Shema is to accept God as the Master of the Universe and to crown Him as king in our lives. That is a very deep internal process, which is given expression by the reciting of the words of the Shema.

Prayer is defined by our sages as the “service of the heart” – deep feeling of emotional and spiritual connection to God – yet this hidden aspect is made concrete and tangible through verbal expression by using a siddur, or prayerbook. By vocalizing the prayers, we reinforce, and give shape and form to the deep internal processes happening beneath the surface.

In a similar way, the mitzva of confession gives verbal expression to the deep internal psychological and emotional process of personal change and repentance. The words of the vidui help us articulate and concretize the deep feelings of regret for the past and resolve for the future.

Confession is also about repairing the damage our actions have caused, specifically to our relationship with God and with those we have wronged. The repentance process is about healing those rifts and restoring our connection to the people we have hurt, and also to our Creator. The Hebrew word for repentance is tshuva, which literally means “return.” Through tshuva, we return to that pristine state in which there was no distance or disconnect in our relationships.

The Rambam says that when it comes to wronging other people, it is sometimes necessary to confess not only privately to God, but to make a public confession and apology to the people harmed in order to rectify the damage. In addition to confession, we are also obliged to ask those we have wronged for forgiveness in situations where we have caused harm to another. The Rambam further writes that the victim of our misdeed needs to act with compassion and graciously grant forgiveness, and in this way, the relationships that have been damaged by our wrongdoing can be fully restored.

When it comes to restoring our relationship with God, our confession is made before Him alone. The purpose, says the Maharal, is to help us restore our closeness to God, a natural state of being disturbed by our wrongdoing. Through the process of confession, we pour out our heart and affect a deep emotional reconciliation with our Creator.

TSHUVA IS an incredible God-given gift to restore that which has been broken. Our sages teach that through the simple act of taking responsibility, of doing tshuva – acknowledging and sincerely regretting our wrongdoings, desisting from them in the present, resolving not to repeat them and confessing before God – we are given the opportunity to travel back in time and undo what has been done.

Through honesty, accountability and true humility we return to a point in time in which our relationships were undamaged, and we renew and reinvigorate our connection with God and with those around us.

It’s a second chance, the gift of a new start, an opportunity to begin afresh so the future is not destroyed by the past – and so we can look ahead with fresh energy, new hope and optimism.

The author is the chief rabbi of South Africa.