“Take with You Words, and Return to God” – The Power of Confession

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

On Shabbat Shuva, we read the inspiring message of the prophet Hoshea:

“Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled in your sin. Take with you words, and return to God; say to Him, ‘Forgive all sin and receive us well, so we will offer the words of our lips instead of calves.” (Hoshea 14:2-3)

The unusual instruction, “Take with you words,” is noted and explained by Chazal:

“Observe that the way of the Holy One, blessed be He, is not like the way of man. The way of man is that if someone speaks insultingly towards his fellow, he may [manage to] appease him or he may not; if he appeases him, he may achieve this with words, or he may not. But when it comes to the Holy One, blessed be He – if a person commits some transgression in private, God may be appeased by him with words, as it is written, ‘Take with you words and return to God.’ Moreover, God then counts this in his favor, as it is written, ‘and receive us well’ (literally, ‘take goodness’). And more than that – he is considered as though he had offered calves as a sacrifice, as it is written, ‘We will offer the words of our lips instead of calves.’” (Yoma 86b)

According to Chazal, then, the meaning behind the instruction to “take with you words” concerns the power of the spoken word to appease God – just like a sacrifice.

The great majority of the Torah commentators understand Hoshea’s instruction here as a reference to the commandment of vidui (oral confession).[1] The Rambam regards the act of confession as a vital component in the process of teshuva (repentance). He writes:

“What is (entailed in) teshuva? It is when the transgressor abandons his transgression, removing it from his thoughts and resolving in his heart not to perform it any more… And also he regrets having performed it… and He Who knows all secrets can testify that he will not repeat this transgression ever again… And one is obliged to confess orally, and to articulate these thoughts which he has resolved in his heart.” (Laws of Teshuva 2:2)

The Chassidic masters, too, viewed vidui as a significant element on the path of teshuva, some even regarding it as the central stage of the process. Their teachings will be the focus of this shiur.

Life-giving letters

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, author of Peri Ha-aretz, focuses on the power of the letters that comprise the words of speech:

“This is as our Sages taught in Mishna Avot (6:2): ‘Each day a Heavenly voice emerges from Mount Chorev and declares…’ For we know that there are six hundred thousand souls of Israel, and likewise letters in the Torah (see Zohar, Shir Ha-shirim 91a), for as we know, ‘the Torah and the Holy One, blessed be He, and Israel, are all one’ (Zohar III 73a) and Israel are themselves the parts of the Torah. And it is known that it was with the Torah that the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world (Zohar I 71) – which means, (by means of) the letters, for there is nothing in the world but the letters which give it life, they being God’s word. And just as the letters are invisible, so too when a person speaks, before he utters anything, his words – and the letters (comprising them) – are mere potential; they are not yet tangible. The essential vitality of anything is the letters comprising it. Thus, if a person sins, heaven forefend, he relegates the letters that are the vitality (of that action) to (the realm of) evil, and thereby empowers evil. Even though this is not visible to mortal eyes, it is known to be the truth. Therefore one who utters oral confession by saying ‘I have sinned’ with bitterness of heart out of his awe of God, along with his love of God, is actually bringing the vitalizing letters out of (the realm of) evil, such that evil is left without vitality, and ceases to exist.” (Peri ha-Aretz, Beha’alotekha)

R. Menachem Mendel cites the well-known equation set forth in the world of kabbala, according to which the Torah, God, and Israel are all one. Thus, the identification of the Torah with God and with Israel is through the letters.

The letters are, first and foremost, God’s speech, by which the world is created. The moment that Creation passes from nothingness into existence is the moment when the letters arise and form the Divine utterance, “Let there be light.”

The letters, then, are themselves Divine spirit which gives life to all of Creation. In this sense the Divine word continues to reverberate throughout Creation.

The letters and their combinations also comprise the Torah. This represents the first link, as R. Menachem Mendel quotes from the Zohar: “With the Torah God created the world.”

The limbs of the Torah are the letters, and these are also the limbs of all of Creation. It is through their various combinations that the Divine utterances by which the world was created, were manifest.

These utterances are immanent to the world, and they are not located on a chronological time-line. According to R. Menachem Mendel, the existence of Creation is ongoing; the utterance is ongoing, the vitality is ongoing – and the letters remain invisible, intangible, throughout Creation and throughout existence.[2]

Here we come to the third side of this wondrous triangle – the Jewish People, or – in the context of the discussion of teshuva – the individual ba’al teshuva.

The speech that emerges from one’s mouth is not, as we shall see in greater detail below, mere air that is shaped in certain ways, but rather living spirit – the same spirit that God breathes into man, thereby vitalizing him. The Torah records that “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Bereishit 2:7). This “breathing” is the imbuing of God’s very essence within man. As the Zohar formulates it, “One who breathes, exhales from within himself.”[3]

This imbuing of God’s essence is what turns man into a living being. Onkelos translates the end of the above verse as follows: “and it became in man a speaking spirit.” The same spirit that is breathed into man, is transformed into a speaking spirit. The Divine spirit is man’s speech, and the letters are the limbs of that speech.

The revolutionary insight here is that man’s speech is not “from within himself” (or “of his own”); to a considerable degree it is not something that he owns and controls. Speech is the Divine essence that is breathed into man, and through him – or, more precisely, through his speech – it emerges and is manifest in the world.[4]

The letters that give life to the world are poured into it in two ways:

  1. by virtue of the primal Divine utterance, which is planted in the world and gives life to everything at every moment;
  1. by virtue of man’s own speech. Through his interaction with reality and the manner in which he maintains dialogue with it, he actualizes the potential of the letters comprising reality. At the same time, through his speech he also imbues reality with the Divine letters, with the vitality that passes through his agency.

This is the essence of man’s power – his mouth, the fact that he is a “speaking spirit.” At the same time, this is also the area where he is in danger of causing harm.

Improper “speech” – meaning a defective dialogue with reality, an interaction of transgression – is not merely a “negative act.” It is the imbuing of vitality and the placing of holy letters within the negative reality into which, heaven forefend, man casts himself.

What Rabbi Menachem Mendel comes to teach here is that a transgression is the creation of a discourse of speech between the Divine spirit that is within man and the evil of which the transgression is an expression. When a person sins, as a “speaking spirit,” as the bearer of the letters that imbue life, he imbues that sin, that evil that he has committed, with some of that vitality.

Evil, in and of itself, is inanimate, mute and invisible. But once a person imbues it with existence, gives it a voice, pours letters into it, it has its say and its voice is heard in the world. The road to repair, then, is through vidui.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel warns the person who sins lest he flee from that negative reality, now energized and animated, that he himself has created. Vidui forces a person to remain for a moment with his transgression, to take note of it, not to ignore it, not to let it simply go by.

Perhaps a person’s first instinct is to ignore his misdeed, to avoid confrontation. After all, why bring transgressions to mind? Surely it is better to focus on the future, to repair our ways and forget what we did in the past. Why this seemingly small-minded insistence on confession, on “rubbing one’s nose in the dirt”?

To this R. Menachem Mendel responds that if we have created negative forces, then we are obligated to do what it takes to get rid of them. Vidui is a renewal of the interaction, the discourse, with the transgression. But since this time it is undertaken from a position of broken-hearted regret, instead of imbuing evil with new letters, one takes the letters that it holds and restores them to the world of sanctity.

To put it in less mystical language, we might say that a negative action has psychic power and energy that feeds it as well as the person who performs it. If the person then ignores what he has done, and its effects, then that energy will always remain, concealed but active. The only way to free it is to harness it to sanctity, to elevate it, to sever it from the evil. The regret and sorrow over the evil deed, as expressed in vidui, remove that negative energy and channel it into the world of sanctity, into Divine service.[5]  

“For whenever I speak of him, I am surely reminded of him”

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov viewed the act of vidui as a supreme value; he expanded this psychological movement and added a further element to it, stating that there is great value in confessing before a tzaddik. Rabbi Nachman addresses the value and benefit of vidui in many of his teachings, and he, too, bases his ideas on a certain perception of speech:

“‘May He grant power to His king and raise the horn of His anointed one’ (Shmuel I 2:10) – this [verse] contains the concepts of Mashiach; the Divine spirit; the unification of the Holy One, blessed be He, with His Shekhina; and the resurrection [of the dead].

For the initial purpose of Creation was in order that God’s attribute of Malkhut (Kingship) be revealed. But the illumination of His light was so great that it could not be contained, and it had to be constricted within the worlds. This is the meaning of the verse (Tehillim 145), ‘Your Kingdom is a Kingdom for all time (kol olamim – literally, all worlds)’ – i.e., the Divine attribute of Malkhut was clothed within the worlds, in order that we might be able to receive it.

But still there was no one to receive the yoke of His Kingship, and therefore the souls of Israel emerged, that they might accept the yoke of His Kingship, for there is no king without a nation of subjects. And from whence did the souls of Israel emerge? From the world of speech. This is the meaning of the verse (Shir Ha-shirim 5), ‘My soul emerged when He spoke (or, with His speech)’ – in other words, the souls of Israel emerged from the world of speech.

And speech is the aspect of Malkhut, as Eliyahu taught [in the Zohar]: ‘Malkhut is [the power of] the mouth.’ And it is also the aspect of the Shekhina, for it dwells with them always, uninterruptedly, as it is written (Vayikra 16), ‘Who dwells with them amidst their impurity.’ And [speech] is also the aspects of ‘the mother of children.’ In other words, just as a mother always goes with her children, and never forgets them, so speech, which is the aspect of the Shekhina, always accompanies man. And this is the meaning of the verse (Yirmiyahu 31), ‘For whenever I speak of him, I am surely reminded of him’ – in other words, as we have said, that speech always ‘remembers’ a person, accompanying him even to the filthiest of places.

And this is the exile of the Shekhina – that speech, which is the aspect of Shekhina, is exiled, and struck dumb, as it is written (Tehillim 39), ‘I was struck dumb with silence.’ And this is the meaning of (Tehillim 58), ‘Are you indeed struck dumb, when you should speak justice?’ Justice is Malkhut of holiness, as we know, and Malkhut is speech, as discussed above, and when it is ‘in exile,’ it is struck dumb.

Therefore a person must effect repair in the same area in which he caused blemish, i.e., through oral confession. As the verse teaches (Hoshea 14), ‘Take words with you’ – that a person should always confess wholeheartedly, ‘before the presence of God.’ Then what happens is [the continuation of the verse,] ‘and return to God’ – that whatever words he blemished will return to their Source.

And this is the aspect of unifying the Holy One with His Shekhina, for he unites speech, which is the aspect of the Shekhina, as discussed above, with God. And this is also the meaning of the verse (Yishayahu 40), ‘And the glory of God shall be revealed, and all flesh will see it together, for the mouth of God has spoken.’ When one unites speech with God, which is the unification of the Holy One with His Shekhina, then ‘the Glory of God will be revealed.’ ‘Glory’ (kavod) is the Shekhina, as we know. Thus, the illumination of the Shekhina, which is the aspect of Malkhut, will be revealed and made great.” (Likkutei Moharan Kama 78)

This is a long teaching that requires in-depth study, but we shall focus on the essence of the message as it pertains to our discussion.

In this teaching, Rabbi Nachman tells us that the Divine revelation in the world requires tzimtzum – constriction, and the souls of Israel are the platform, the vessel, within which this constricted Divine revelation is manifest.

For Rabbi Nachman, too, the movement, the act that creates the possibility of revelation is none other than speech.

Speech represents the sefira of Malkhut, the sefira of the Divine Presence, which expresses the infinite Divine manifestation within the limited world with its vessels and its boundaries. This is speech, the spoken word.[6]

Speech is the immanence of God within a person – and here again, as in the teaching of R. Menachem Mendel, this is itself the great danger. Because when a person utters speech that is not connected to Torah and to sanctity, he severs the connection between the Divine revelation that is manifest through speech, and its infinite Source – thereby leading the Divine Presence, speech, the Divine revelation, into exile.

The unification of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Divine Presence (the Shekhina), according to Rabbi Nachman, is first and foremost a renewal of the connection and bond between speech – the routine interaction in a person’s life, the Divine spirit that animates him in reality, all known as the “Shekhina” – and the infinite Divine Source, the supreme sanctity of God Himself.

Here Rabbi Nachman takes another step beyond what we have seen thus far – both in the images that he uses and in the practical guidance that he derives from it.

The fact that a person’s speech – insofar as he is a human being – is itself the Divine Shekhina within him, as explained, means that it bears the great danger of defiling the Shekhina and condemning it to exile. At the same time, it represents the infinite salvation and deliverance that exist within man himself.

A human being qua human being, no matter where he goes and what he does – even, heaven forefend, descending to the lowest degeneration – remains a “speaking spirit,” i.e., he retains the Divine Presence within him.

The image that R. Nachman presents is one of a mother hovering over her young, remaining with them even in their filth. Likewise a child who has behaved badly will still be viewed with compassion by his mother, for that is natural.

Similarly, the Shekhina, which is a “Mother” of sorts, remains with a person wherever he goes. Speech is the vessel within which God’s spirit rests with a person, in any reality in which he ends up.

This is the great hope of a person who has sinned and transgressed and ended up in the lowly place where he now finds himself. The power of speech is not taken from him even there, and the ability to bring God’s Presence within him to the fore is always a possibility. R. Nachman explains the wondrous significance of, “Whenever I speak of him, I am surely reminded of him.” Seemingly, the verse should present this idea in the opposite order: “When I remember him I speak of him.” The inversion, according to R. Nachman, is no coincidence. And he notes and emphasizes the exact wording of the verse: speech remembers and reminds, it recalls to mind and to our consciousness.

Confession allows a person to renew the manifestation of the Divine Presence within him, to renew his bond with it. This is the great gift of teshuva, which allows a person – no matter how low he has fallen – to return, through the power of speech, through confession, to make God manifest within him. In so doing, R. Nachman tells us, he reveals God’s glory, and through this revelation of God’s glory he is able to redeem his soul.

Vidui is a lifejacket – it allows a person to turn to God in any place, in any situation. Vidui is not just an obligation, but a privilege; it is a person’s guarantee that God will never abandon him, like a mother who promises that she will never abandon her child.

While a superficial understanding of vidui might perceive it as an act of appeasement, R. Menachem Mendel perceives it as an act of repairing the transgression and deficiency, and R. Nachman looks further than the objective deficiency. He teaches that vidui is the vessel that allows a person to renew his bond with God no matter where he may be, and to transform even his distance from God into a connection of sorts.

Rabbi Nachman's disciple Rabbi Natan expands on the above teaching:

“It is also explained in this teaching that speech accompanies a person even to detestable places, like a mother who is with her child wherever he goes, and therefore speech is called 'the mother of children.' This is why 'Whenever I speak of him, I am surely reminded of him' – even if a person is located, heaven forefend, in a place that is the lowest of the low, even in a despicable state, nevertheless by means of speech he may recall God to himself.

In other words, even if he is in such a place (or state), if he nevertheless gathers his strength to speak holy words, of Torah and prayer and meditation, then he may remind himself of God, even in those lowly states, which are like ‘detestable places,’ even if he has fallen to where he has fallen. For speech does not allow him to forget God – as alluded to in the words, ‘For whenever I speak of him, I am surely reminded of him’: that so long as he has Godly speech within him – meaning, speech of holiness – that speech will not allow him to be forgotten by God, for speech remembers and reminds him to strengthen himself in God wherever he is.

Understand this matter well, concerning the great power of speech. This is a wondrous and awesome piece of advice for one who is truly seeking, lest he lose his world altogether, heaven forefend.”

It would seem that Rabbi Natan is not exaggerating when he describes this as “a wondrous… advice for one seeking, lest he lose his world altogether.” Vidui is a life jacket because it reflects the fact that the Shekhina, the Divine Presence, never leaves a person, even when he has fallen to truly low places.[7]

Confession of words – a story of words

The following teaching of Rabbi Nachman, as recorded by his disciple Rabbi Natan, would appear to offer further insight as to the added value of vidui:

“Our teacher, of blessed memory, said as follows: ‘I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage’ (Shemot 20): When a person knows that whatever happens to him is for his own good, that is a taste of the World to Come, as it is written (Tehillim 56), ‘In the Lord I will praise His word; in God I will praise His word.’ And this itself is a taste of the World to Come, as our Sages, of blessed memory, taught (Pesachim 50a) concerning the verse, ‘On that day God will be One’: They questioned, ‘Is He then not One at this time?' And our Sages explained that in this world, when something good happens we recite the blessing, ‘He Who is good and Who performs good,’ while over something bad we say, ‘the True Judge.’ In the future, all will be ‘Who is good and Who performs good,’ for the Name of the Lord and the Name of God will be a single unity.

This concept cannot be attained unless the aspect of holy Malkhut is raised from its exile among the idolaters. For right now ‘malkhut’ (royal sovereignty) and government belong to the heathens, and for that reason their gods are referred to as ‘elohim,’ for they draw from the aspect of Malkhut that is called 'Elokim,' as it is written (Tehillim 74), ‘God (Elokim) is my King of old.’ And when the aspect of Malkhut is raised up from among the idolaters, then there is a fulfillment of the verse (Tehillim 47), ‘For God (Elokim) is King of all the earth.’

Malkhut is restored to the Holy One, blessed be He, only through oral confession (‘confession of words’) before a learned sage. Through his, one repairs and elevates Malkhut to its root. This is the meaning of the verse (Hoshea 14), ‘Take words with you…’ – this refers to confession, which is Malkhut, as in (the teaching of Chazal), ‘There is only one speaker (dabbar) [in a generation]’ (Sanhedrin 8a). ‘Dabbar’ is a term connoting a leader.

(Hoshea continues,) ‘and return to God’ – that they should repair and elevate the words, the Malkhut, which is the aspect of Elokim, to God. This is as we mentioned previously (in the verse in Tehillim), ‘In the Lord I will praise His word; in God I will praise His word.’ In other words, he should know that everything that happens to him – everything is for his own good, and he should bless God for everything, ‘He Who is good and Who performs good.’

When he knows all of this, he is said to have complete knowledge, for the essence of knowledge is the unity of loving-kindness and might; that is called ‘knowledge’ (da’at). In other words, that one does not draw a distinction between (Divine) loving-kindness and (Divine) justice, but blesses over everything ‘He Who is good and Who performs good.’

And this is called, ‘the Lord is One and His Name is One,’ as our Sages taught – that in the future there will be a complete unity, and all will be ‘He Who is Good and Who performs good’ – this is the meaning of ‘the Lord is One.’ ‘And His Name’ – this is the aspect of Elokim, Malkhut, as it is written (Shmuel II 8:13), ‘And David made a Name.’ The word ‘echad’ (meaning ‘one’) has the same numerical value as the word ‘ahava’ (meaning ‘love’): this implies that both the Lord, Who is merciful, and His Name, which reflects Elokim, implying Divine justice – all is for your good, owing to the love that the Holy One, blessed be He, has for you, as it is written (Mishlei 3), ‘He whom God loves, He rebukes,’ and it is written (Amos 3), ‘Only you have I known out of all the families of the earth; therefore I shall visit your transgressions upon you.’” (Likkutei Moharan Kama 4)

In this teaching, Rabbi Nachman creates an equation, each element of which requires explanation.[8]

A person’s knowledge that everything that happens to him is for the good, is itself a unifying concept that is “a taste of the World to Come,” and this knowledge can be attained only by redeeming the Shekhina from its exile among the nations. This, in turn, is achieved through confession before a tzaddik. When a person does this, he attains complete knowledge, which is the inner insight that whatever happens to him is for the best. And then he arrives at the unifying concept that “God is One and His Name is One,” which is “a taste of the World to Come.”

The distinction between good and evil, between loving-kindness and strict justice, between happy events and sad events, is immanent to this world, which is based on duality and multiplicity – the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. The multiplicity that characterizes our reality creates an experience of separateness whereby every event or situation is local, pertaining only to itself.

Our lives, from this perspective, are a collection of events, incidents, and situations that only rarely are brought together in our minds with a strand that connects one point to the next, one period of time to the one that follows. Separation is the most successful foundation for propagation of the duality of good and evil, since if every event or situation is measured on its own, it will be categorized as good or evil, happy or sad, effective or harmful.

This is a dualistic, separate, non-unified reality. It is a reality that reflects a “multiplicity of gods,” allowing every situation, every experience – no matter how marginal or twisted – to assert its own existence and importance, its own “sovereignty,” as it were, since it is committed to nothing but itself. In this exilic reality, every god becomes "God," and the acceptance or adoption of this reality becomes idolatry, an acceptance of “other gods.”[9]

Here R. Nachman introduces his revolutionary proposal of confession before a tzaddik. Obviously, one of the first implications of this is that the confession is addressed not to the Master of the universe, but to the tzaddik. I believe that we would be mistaken in viewing the tzaddik as God’s agent to forgive a person for his sins through the confession. Such a view does not belong to the Jewish world or the Jewish religion.[10] Rather, in shifting the address of the vidui from God to the tzaddik, R. Nachman neutralizes its aspect of appeasement and turns the focus categorically towards the person confessing. The tzaddik serves merely as a mirror or aid by means of which the confessor might arrive at the knowledge to which vidui should lead. All we have to do is tell our story to him. R. Nachman directs us to find an individual who is sufficiently great that he might serve as a mirror, reflecting our story back to us.

When one tells a story, a number of psychological movements take place within the listeners – but even more so within the speaker himself.

First, he is occupied with threading connecting strands between different events – one situation or incident leads to another. There is an Act I, followed by an Act II, and there is anticipation of an Act III.

Second, the speaker seeks a direction, a purpose, an ultimate end to which the story is leading. There is a plot, with low points and high points, and despite all the twists and turns there is a gradual clarification of where it is all headed.

Third, the speaker is brought – willingly or unwillingly – into an encounter with the Author of the story, with His intentions, motivations, and hints. The story awards a presence to the speaker, but even more so to the Author – if they are not one and the same.

It would seem that in proposing vidui before a tzaddik, R. Nachman has all of these three purposes in mind.

When we tell the story of our lives, we connect one incident to another, one year to the next; we see how one place led us to a different place and how one period of time was followed by another. Suddenly, that which previously appeared to us as a collection of unrelated dots, becomes aligned, and assumes a context and continuity.

This in turn clarifies the purpose or direction. The continuity is imbued with meaning, the contexts assume structured content, and the confessor suddenly perceives his life as a plot that has a beginning and that will have an end. There are patches where the purpose was advanced, and other patches where it was held back; there is a first floor, and there is a second floor that is built on top of it.

Finally, when all of this happens, the confessor encounters the guiding hand of Providence and comes face to face with the “Owner of the estate.” The intention of the Author, the Creator, now becomes clear: “And every active thing will know that You activate it, and every creature will know that You are its Creator.”

This is the complete reality to which R. Nachman aspires, where “God is One and His Name is One” and everything that happens to a person is wrapped within the binding of a single story that has a beginning and an end, in which everything has meaning, where there is a guiding hand. Even seeming evil plays an important role in the plot that gradually comes together into a wondrous story that is all a song of praise.

All it takes, says R. Nachman, is to tell our story, to confess. That confession is complete knowledge. The tzaddik before whom we confess looks at us with his transparent gaze and gives us back ourselves which we have cast upon him. He listens, sometimes offering a comment for clarification, and restores ourselves to us, through the power of our speech. Thus the Shekhina is redeemed from its suffering and its exile, and reappears in all its glorious power.

R. Nachman casts confession in a tremendously positive light. Previously we might have thought, from the perspective of strict justice, that confession leads a person to a painful encounter with his sins. R. Nachman elevates the act and the experience to a place of redemption – first by inspiring the person wallowing in his lowly darkness with new hope and renewing the connection between him and God, and second through the capacity of vidui to restore a person to himself, to tell his story, to look at his life wholly, from a unified perspective, and to understand clearly from where he has come and where he is going.[11]

God did us a great favor by granting us the special gift of vidui, and an even greater favor by giving us R. Nachman and other Chassidic masters who sweeten the experience of vidui and turn it into the pinnacle of the process of teshuva. As we say in the Ne’ila prayer of Yom Kippur,

“You hold out a hand to sinners, and Your right hand is extended to receive those who repent. Teach us, Lord our God, to confess before You all of our sins, in order that we might desist from the injustice of our deeds, and accept us in complete repentance before You.”

May we and all of Israel be sealed for a good year.

 


[1] For example, “’Take words with you’ – I do not ask of you sacrifices and burnt offerings; rather, ‘take words with you’ – that you should confess before Him, and thereby ‘return to God.’” (Metzudat David). Ibn Ezra, Radak and others offer similar interpretations.

[2] In many Chassidic teachings, especially those emanating from the school of the Maggid of Mezritch, the individual is charged with the role of raising the Divine sparks through service that involves the letters and one’s cleaving to them.

[3]  There are other versions of the exact quote, and the Acharonim are divided as to the precise location of this source; we shall not elaborate here.

[4] Here again, many teachings, especially those originating with the Maggid of Mezeritch, guide a person to elevate himself to a level where the speech that emerges from his mouth, especially in prayer, is unconscious; the Divine Presence may thus “speak out” from his throat.

[5]  A similar teaching, based on the same principles, is offered by Rabbi Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl, a disciple of the Maggid:

“Through oral confession, when a person acknowledges, between himself and his Creator, truthfully, wholeheartedly, and with complete regret, that which he spoiled is repaired. For we know that if a person transgresses, he causes a blemish in the Torah, which is the 22 letters by which heaven and earth were created. For by committing the transgression he causes the heavenly Torah to be deficient in some letters – (for example,) if he has stolen, thereby transgressing (the commandment), ‘You shall not steal’, then he has separated those letters from the Torah, and that part of his soul. Afterwards, when he comes to confess through words – which are also composed of letters – and he says, ‘I did such-and-such, and I regret it,’ then he is recalling the transgression with his words, and regretting it (retracting it, as it were). Thus he repairs that which he spoiled, and restores the letters to the heavenly Torah.” (Meor Enayim, Vayetze)

[6]  The connection between ‘mila, meaning a ‘word,’ and ‘mila’ in the sense of cutting (as in brit mila – circumcision) is clear: a word ‘cuts’, defines, and constricts the infinity of thoughts and ideas within a finite vessel which both facilitates the revelation and limits it.

[7] Indirectly, Rabbi Natan also opens another front by raising the issue of “detestable places” and the prohibition of speaking words of holiness in such places. This teaching pertains to the most sensitive aspects of the dispute between the Chassidic world and its opponents. R. Chaim of Volozhin addresses the issue at length in his work Nefesh Ha-chaim, but we shall not elaborate here.

[8]  Once again, we will focus here only on the main points that pertain to our discussion.

[9]  Rabbi Nachman cannot console himself with the etymological fact that the name ‘elohim’ is not necessarily a holy Name of God; in the language of the Torah, judges are also referred to by this name. What he bemoans is the fact that one of God’s holy Names is desecrated among the nations.

[10]  As far as I am aware, nowhere in R. Nachman’s teachings is there any mention, nor even so much as a hint, of the idea that the tzaddik forgives a person’s sins on God’s behalf or in His Name.

[11] It is no coincidence that R. Nachman elaborates at length, in Likkutei Moharan Kama 178, on the critical need for joy in order to succeed in confessing properly.