Chatati, Aviti, Pashati- I have sinned, I have transgressed, I have done wrong
The epicenter of Yom Kippur is the vidui, confession. The source for this vidui can be found in the Torah, in the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. Several times the Torah commands the High Priest to confess the transgressions of the People of Israel along with his own sins and those of his family. (Vayikra, 16)
The wording of the vidui prayer, “chatati, aviti, pashati,” "I have sinned, I have transgressed, I have done wrong," is borrowed from the language of the verses that describe the High Priest's obligation to confess: "And he will confess all the transgressions (avonot) of the Children of Israel and all their wrongdoings (pisheihem), for all their sins (chataotam)." (Vakikra 15, 21) The confession of the High Priest is a general confession. There is no attempt at a detailed list of every sin that each individual of Israel committed, impossible though it may be, nor is there an attempt to specify his own transgressions or those of his family. The main goal of this vidui is placation and kapara- atonement. Indeed this is the main goal of the entirety of his service on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
A similar vidui can be found in a number of places throughout Tanach. When Shlomo prays for the Temple he says that in the future, when the people are in exile and they pray for their redemption, they will use the same language, "chatanu, v'heavinu, v'hirshanu" "we have sinned, we have transgressed, we have done evil," and God will accept their prayer and return them from the exile. (Melachim I 8, 47) In Tehillim there is a psalm that is vidui for the communal sins of the generation; the center of the psalm is the refrain, "chatanu im avoteinu, he'avinu, v'hirshanu," "we have sinned with our fathers, we have transgressed, we have done evil." (Tehillim 106, 6) This too is a communal vidui and it does not relate specific individual sins, but rather gives a general description.
These sources all focus on confessing the sins of the community, the distance from God. They confess the general state of the People of Israel and bemoan the reality that God is not more present in the world. This vidui does not ignore individual sins, rather it chooses to focus on the larger picture. It puts these sins in a wider context by exposing the root of the problem- the loss of a connection with God. There is no individual sin that does not stem from forgetting God. Moreover people do not transgress in a vacuum; there is a general social atmosphere that legitimizes such actions. And so, in a way, this general vidui is more precise because it speaks to the root of the problem. It exposes the cause of the malady rather than the various symptoms. The symptoms are illusions, they make us think that we have just briefly strayed, that this was a momentary, individual lapse. And so the general vidui does not bring up one-time failures, those things a person deals with on a daily basis. Yom Kippur digs much deeper; it resets the scales to zero and brings us back to an angelic state. In this state we are closest to God; the fractured source of our sin is repaired and we are able to return to our single, unified foundation.
It almost goes without saying that when the Temple was destroyed and the center of the Yom Kippur service moved from the Temple to the synagogue each individual person in Israel took on the position of the High Priest. Now we are all commanded to confess the sins of the greater community of Israel and atone for all our brothers and sisters.
Yet this is not the only way of understanding vidui, there is another, opposing approach. This second approach focuses on the individual and their account for each personal failure. The Rambam is a proponent of this approach, but he traces its roots back to the Written Torah and the Talmud. (see T.B. Yoma 86b; Shmuel II 12, 13) Rambam takes the idea of individual vidui and turns it into a positive commandment; he finds a source and sets it down for generations as one of the 613 Torah commandments. Rambam declares:
"When one does teshuva (repents) and returns from his sin he is obligated to confess before God, blessed be He, as it says, ‘A man or a woman when they do... they shall confess...’ ...
And how does one confess? He says, ‘Ana Hashem, chatati, aviti, pashati lefanecha...’ ‘Please God, I have sinned, I have transgressed, I have done wrong before You, and I have done such and such. And behold I have regretted and I am embarrassed by my actions...’" (Rambam Hilchot Teshuva Chapter 1)
For Rambam the source of vidui is the vidui that is said on an asham gezeilot (guilt offering brought for stealing). (Bamidbar 5, 7) While the verse does refer to an individual's sin, it relates specifically to different types of stealing. Rambam removes this vidui from its original context and puts it into the context of teshuva for any and all types of sins. Then he borrows from the words of the High Priest on Yom Kippur to compose the text of the vidui. The result is an interesting amalgam where a general vidui is turned into something personal and individual through the addition of one critical line: "and I have done such and such."
Many people have mixed feelings about this vidui; while they see it as the right thing to do, it's also difficult and complex. It takes so much courage for a person to stand up and list all their sins, precisely and in detail. It is an understatement to say it is unpleasant for a person to stand in front of a mirror and point out all their failures. Yet according to the first opinion we explored we are merely pointing out the symptoms and outer manifestations of a much deeper problem that can be traced to one root- forgetting God.
One could reconcile these two ideas and say that both types of vidui are necessary for each individual, but each one fits different situations. Within our individual sins some are blunders, momentary lapses. It is important to differentiate between a single episode when one was stingy and a general attitude of miserliness. There is a difference between that one time we got angry and ingrained harshness, criticality, tactlessness, or arrogance. There are times we will slip up with something we wear or we say, and then there is a lack of modesty that is symptomatic of a general lack of understanding that we are always standing before God.
Yet one could also claim that such a differentiation is false. The difference between the two opinions is not between different types of sins, but rather different mindsets about sin. Someone who passes by someone in need without offering help could see their inaction as an isolated bout of stinginess, or they could attribute it to forgetting Who is really in control of wealth, even if such amnesia is only momentary.
Consequently, a path of return from our wayward ways is connected to how we understand our transgressions. Should we fix such lapses one trait at a time and work toward generosity in the future; or should we dig deep and try to figure out how we could have failed and blinded ourselves to God by thinking "kochi v'otzem yadi asa li et hachayil hazeh," "my strength and the might of my hand made this success." A person who sees their sins as isolated incidents is constantly experiencing defeat and pangs of conscience as they pick at their wounds; eventually they sink into despair, drowning in the sea of their sins. But someone who looks for the common root of their sins is a bit more forgiving. The basis of their mindset is the assumption that people are in a constant struggle trying to see God in this world, and, no matter how hard they work at it this is not a challenge that can be won. Yet they still must struggle. And so this mindset is still exceedingly demanding. It may not give us a laundry list of specific things we can work on; instead it demands existential change.
In our machzor we find both versions. The section of vidui that begins with "ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu," "We have been guilty, we have cheated, we have stolen..." does not deal with specific sins; instead it describes a greater reality, one of rebellion and waywardness. The next section lists specific sins, each one beginning with the line "al chet shechatanu lefanecha..." "for the sins that we sinned before you..." And so it seems we include both approaches, confessing both specific sins and the mindset that leads to sin.
And yet at some point this list of individual sins became a unified vidui recited together. We do not confess our own sins, but rather the full range of possible sins, some of which we can claim as our own, others belonging to those around us. As the Aruch Hashulchan explains:
"… He does this when he details each sin, but in the version of 'al chet' this is not at all appropriate, because the version is the same for everyone." (Aruch Hashulchan Orach Chaim 607)
The Aruch Hashulchan makes it seem as though the approach of the High Priest we first explored has won out. Yet not everyone agrees; there are still many who attempt to return to an individual vidui by sticking notes and explanations into the general vidui.
And we continue to vacillate between the two mindsets as we move from one vidui to the other, change our technique or shift our approach- the two attitudes intertwined in our thoughts and lives just as they are in our prayerbooks.