If a man or a woman commits any of the sins of mankind … they must confess the sin that they committed. Leviticus 5:6-7
Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher and scholar highlights the concept of confession in the beginning of his Laws of Repentance. There he cites the above verse and asserts that the confession of one’s sins is an obligation commanded to us by God in the Torah.
As we recite the confession during the Yom Kippur services, we strike our chests for each category of sin. Ashamnu… we have become guilty. Bagadnu… we have robbed. … Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha… for the sin we have committed before you…
Since each strike of our chest seemingly draws attention to the weaknesses and imperfections of mankind, the confession can become an intense and heavy part of the service.
Whereas an animal only ever does what it is created to do by responding to physical stimuli, a human being is infused with a nishmat chaim – a Godly soul (Genesis 2:7). This unique mix of physical and spiritual gives rise to great conflict and discord between our animalistic nature which tries to satisfy bodily urges and our conscience (soul) which encourages us to refrain from evil and immorality. This unrelenting conflict between body and soul, physical and spiritual, instant worldly pleasure and deferred eternal bliss, means that unlike the animals, mankind has the capacity to rebel against God.
Perhaps the striking of our chests should denote a symbolic punishment or chastisement for our shortcomings. If so, confession on Yom Kippur serves only to deflate us and make us feel defective, inadequate and lower than the animals.
This is not the correct approach. Our confession may force us to acknowledge our faults to provoke regret, but that is only the beginning. Maimonides continues to state that the process of confession does not stop with a mere declaration of guilt. There are three stages: admission, regret and a pledge to never repeat the sinful act.
It is this last stage which must be viewed in a positive light, transforming confession into a life changing process giving us an opportunity to achieve something that no animal could dream of; the inspiration and ambition to improve ourselves.
While it is true that mankind has the capacity to sin, we strike ourselves not out of punishment, but to cry out to God that it was the bodily, physical part of our being which brought us to sin. Our souls still yearn for something greater.
Yom Kippur then becomes a day when the confession of our sins helps us to assert our ability to rise above the animalistic drives which originally ensnared us and engage with our soul as we strive for Godliness.
If we keep that in mind, each strike of our chest represents our longing for personal growth, the most profound and fundamental statement of our own humanity.