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Parashat Nasso

Parshat Nasso - I swear I didn’t do it!

By Dan Cohen

For decades, my grandfather (my dad’s dad) had his dental practice in two rooms at the front of his row home in Philadelphia. The rule in my Mama & Papa’s home was not to go into the waiting room when patients were there. 

Unfortunately, as a curious young child, I was fascinated by my grandfather’s dental practice, especially the patients waiting in the waiting room. The giant double doors opened quickly from their dining room into the waiting room…and were inviting. 

So, one time, I snuck in, schmoozed the patients, and got busted. I was given a stern talking-to. I might have even “swore to Gd”, a serious act of making a promise or oath, that it wasn’t my fault. 

As part of my punishment, my grandparents made me say what I had done wrong…out loud.  

Looking back, the request to verbalize what I’d done seemed odd because we all knew what I had done.  Yet, I admitted something like, “I snuck into the waiting room and shouldn’t have done it.”  

Confession is a universal experience. We've all likely found ourselves in situations where we’ve transgressed, whether it's a mitzvah or a personal interaction. We know we’ve sinned, the person we've wronged knows, and perhaps others are aware. But why do we feel the need to vocalize it?

Admitting our responsibility is not just an act; it's a powerful act we are commanded to perform. It's about taking ownership of our actions and their consequences.  

In the parsha, we are instructed in Chapter 5, Verses 5-7, 'The Lord then spoke to Moses saying: Tell the children of Israel: When a man or woman commits any of the sins against man to act treacherously against God, and that person is [found] guilty, they shall confess the sin they committed, and make restitution for the principal amount of his guilt, add its fifth to it, and give it to the one against whom he was guilty.'

In practical halachic terms, this plays out as follows. If a man first denies his responsibility under oath (after swearing to Hashem), and then his responsibility is proven, he pays the full restitution and adds one-fifth. That extra fifth is dropped if he is “convicted” on the testimony of witnesses without having sworn to Hashem.  Why pay more if he admits guilt? 

Rav Hirsch explains, "Every sin against a fellow man is also a breach of trust against G-d.”  He adds that this is especially true when one has sworn to Gd to prove his honesty. That’s why the extra payment is required. The debt he owed is one to Gd now, not just a fellow man, and is elevated to a sacred status. Thus, he must add an offering to make amends.

If Hirsch focuses on a lack of admission, Rambam looks at when a person does confess his misdeed. He says the confession must be sincere. To confess without meaning it withholds any rectification. 

The Sefer HaChinuch goes one step further. In it, he says the sinner reveals his inner thoughts and feelings through verbal confession. By mentioning it out loud, he will feel remorse and be even more careful the next time.

I’m not sure that was the case when I was a young pup peering into my grandfather’s dental practice. However, I can assure you that as I’ve gotten older, admitting when I was wrong, acknowledging an error in my judgment, and verbalizing how I might have hurt another person was a critical step in ensuring that it didn’t happen again. That holds true in my relationships at home, work, and community.

But I’m human, and you are too. What about the times when our confessions may have been insincere? Do they count? 

The Rebbe’s Chumash delves into the Rambam's teachings, highlighting the three-part teshuvah process. It begins with insincerity, moves to partial remorse, and culminates in complete remorse. This underscores the importance of acknowledging our mistakes, feeling genuine guilt, and committing to change. It's a powerful reminder of the gravity of our actions and the need for sincere remorse to pave the way for true transformation.

First, the Rambam would find it somewhat unhelpful to confess insincerely but not entirely useless. An insincere confession, the Rambam says, is still a step in the right direction.  There may be benefits if you are uncomfortable and embarrassed, even if you don’t plan to end your conduct or change your ways. 

He says this discomfort is part of teshuvah. In my case, even if I intended to sneak back into that fantastic dental waiting room, saying it out loud would bring shame and hopefully start the recognition process.

Second, when a person has sincerely resolved not to sin again in his heart, confession allows him to express his resolutions outwardly. Rambam is teaching us that if we have determined to change our behavior, saying aloud that we feel remorse and will change our conduct may be more likely to “stick” if we verbalize it. 

Third, confession effectively inspires the person to remorse further, and he will be more careful on other occasions not to stumble. Temptation is tough. We can all talk a big game about remorse, but what happens when the opportunity presents itself again? I don’t recall ever peeking into the waiting room again after the discipline occurred. I guess that out of the experience I mentioned, I resolved not to do it again, no matter how tempting.

I can still see myself looking up at those giant doors (to a small child) and feeling something extraordinary was on the other side. But I can also still feel the pain and disappointment that registered in my grandparents because of my poor behavior. 

Our path to making amends and teshuvah starts with honoring both feelings. We will all be challenged continually to weigh the attraction to sin and the recognition of the cost of our actions to help us make wiser choices.



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