We begin the vidui (“confession”) on Yom Kippur by confessing the sins that we’ve committed “be-oness u-ve’ratzon” – “against our will and willingly.” Surprisingly, we confess to having violated sins in situations of “oness,” under extenuating circumstances that were beyond our control.
At first glance, this confession seems very difficult to understand. One of the most basic halakhic principles is that violators are not held accountable in any way for sins committed in situations of “oness,” when the violations were committed due to circumstances beyond their control. As opposed to situations of “shogeig,” where a violation resulted from a mistake that could have been avoided, such as if one violated Shabbat because he thought it was Sunday, in which case an atonement sacrifice is required, in situations of “oness” the violator is not held accountable in any way. Why, then, do we confess transgressions committed “be-oness” as part of our repentance on Yom Kippur?
One of the suggestions offered to explain this surprising confession is to read the words “be-oness u-ve’ratzon” not as two separate groups of sins, but as describing a situation where a willful violation is committed under the guise of “oness.” Oftentimes, we excuse ourselves from a certain obligation, or permit ourselves to do something wrong, with the claim that the law in question is too difficult for us to observe under the circumstances. The category of “be-oness u-ve’ratzon” refers to sins resulting from complacency, when we say “I can’t” as a cover for our lack of ambition and our decision not to invest the effort or make the sacrifice necessary to maximize our potential.
This approach is developed more fully by the Penei Menachem (Rav Pinchas Menachem Alter of Ger), in one of his published discourses (Otzar Derashot U-ma’amarim, pp. 170-171). Addressing the precise definition of “oness,” the Penei Menachem cites the comments of his grandfather, the Sefat Emet (Parashat Ki-Teitzei, 5634 & 5640), analyzing the Biblical source of the halakhic concept of “oness.” The Sages inferred this principle from the Torah’s discussion of rape in Sefer Devarim (22:23-24), where it establishes that a betrothed rape victim is not liable to punishment for the adulterous relationship, since she was violated against her will. This demonstrates that when a person commits a violation due to circumstances entirely beyond his control, he is not held accountable. However, the Torah adds that if the woman was assaulted in a city, where people could have rescued her, and she did not cry for help, she is not absolved from accountability on the grounds of “oness.” If a person committed a sin under duress, but did not seize available opportunities to extricate himself from the situation and thereby avoid the sin, he is held accountable and does not fall under the category of “oness.” The Sefat Emet noted that this demonstrates the limited scope of the rule of “oness,” underscoring the fact that it applies only if the person explored every possibility of escaping the situation in order to avoid the violation in question.
The Penei Menachem applies his grandfather’s insight to explain our confession on Yom Kippur for sins committed “be-oness u-ve’ratzon.” In this declaration, he says, we confess all the occasions when we lowered our standards claiming “oness,” that we had no alternative, when in truth we had other options which we lazily ignored. We confess all the occasions when we could have reached higher but conveniently convinced ourselves that we had already achieved the best we could hope for under our conditions. We confess all the occasions when we said we had no other choice, when in reality we did. We confess all the occasions when we did not “cry for help,” when we chose not to look for ways to help ourselves grow and improve. Right at the outset of the vidui service, we acknowledge, shamefully, that we could have done better, that many of our excuses are invalid, that out of complacency and laziness we preferred saying, “I can’t” instead of saying, “I’ll try.”