“For the sin we sinned before You, b’ones u’beratzon, under duress and willingly. So begins the litany of al chets, the double acrostic listing of our sins we say nine times over the Yom Kippur holiday[1].

Each al chet contains a double confession. Firstly, Shechatanu, that we have sinned, that we have done something wrong. And doing something wrong impacts on us, and most often on others; our family, our community and beyond. As humans we have great difficulty recognizing the wrongs we do and even greater difficulty admitting wrongdoing when we do recognize it. We much prefer to justify our wrongdoing, explaining why it is not wrong allowing us to continue the wrong without any cognitive dissonance.  

Commenting on this aspect of human nature, Rav Huna notes, “When a person transgresses and repeats his transgression, it becomes as if it is permitted to him” (Kiddushin 40a). The first time a person does something wrong they generally understand it is wrong. But once the wrongdoing is repeated it becomes part and parcel of who we are, and therefore cannot really be a sin. We after all, are good people.

With deep psychological insight the baalei mussar, the masters of ethical teaching, teach that when a person sins a “third time”, one begins to consider the sin a mitzva. Such is the human need to justify our actions. Hence the importance of saying over and over that we have sinned. Only if one takes this too heart can one can begin the process of teshuva, moving away from sin.

The above holds true irrespective of one’s religious beliefs and is equally true for the atheist and the pious. While they may differ in their definition of wrongdoing, all do wrong and all can do better.

Yet for the believer there is an additional aspect to our sinning, the second confession we make. Lefanecha, before G-d. We have not only harmed our character we have disobeyed G-d. Even if the sin has no impact on us or others – an unlikely scenario – we have acted against the Creator. And that perhaps is the greatest sin of all.

This is the classic reason a ganav, one who stealthily steals, what we might call the white-collar criminal, must pay double the amount stolen in restitution, whereas the gazlan, the mugger, one who brazenly steals, is required only to return the stolen object with no penalty added. At least the gazlan does not pretend to be honest. He may care little about man or G-d but what you see is what you get. The ganav, tries to hide his sin and places his fear of man ahead of that of G-d. Counter-intuitively perhaps, it is easier for a gazlan to recognize his wrong and hence do teshuva, than for the ganav who pretends that no wrong has been committed.

Hence the order of the al chet “For the sin we have sinned before You in public and in private”. When asking for forgiveness, or ay favour, we first make a lesser request before asking for a bigger favour. We thus start with the sin done in public, a lesser sin, and then ask for forgivness for the greater sin of sinning in private[2].

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to teshuva is contained in the opening al chet with which we began above. “For the sin we sinned before You, b’ones, under duress”. This is a rather strange way to begin our confession. Being forced to sin, sinning under duress, is no sin at all. “Ones? Rachmana patrei, Duress" The Mercuiful One exempts" (Bava Kamma 28b). We cannot be held responsible for what we are forced to do. How then can the very first sin we mention be the “sin” committed under duress? 

Apparently, there is duress and there is duress. It is true that if a gun is held to one’s head and is told to eat a cheeseburger one may, nay, one must[3], eat that cheeseburger. But that is not what the al chet is talking about. It refers rather to our feeling that we have no choice but to sin. We claim duress where what is required is serious effort. The duress that everyone else cheats so I must too is not actually duress.

All too often we claim we cannot change; it is  too hard, it is too late, it won’t work, I tried already and on and on. We claim duress where none truly exists. Change is not easy, but it is not impossible either.

As Yom Kippur comes to a close and we have recited the ending bracha of the Amidah of Neilah we proclaim, “You reach out Your hand to transgressors, and Your right hand is extended to receive those who [truly] repent”. Such is true even, perhaps especially, after Yom Kippur is over. After all, how much is now left to repent on Yom Kippur?

The aseret yemi hateshuva, the Ten days of repentance, may end as Yom Kippur draws to a close, but the shalosh meiot arbaim varba, the 344 days of teshuva between Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah are just beginning.

G-d created us to sin. That is what it means to be human and G-d created humans. It is through sin that we grow – provided one puts in the effort, learns from our inevitable mistakes and reach out to take G-d’s outstretched hand with love. “In a place where the penitent stands even the righteous cannot stand”

May we merit to learn from our sins and be sealed in in the books of health, happiness, peace and all good things.

[1] While the shorter Ashamnu confession is said 10 times, the al chets are said only nine. Once during Mincha on “erev” Yom Kippur and twice during Maariv, Shacharit, Mussaf and Mincha. It is not said at Neilah, perhaps because we do not want to dwell on sin as the “gates of heaven are closing”. I do not know how widespread the custom to say it a tenth time just before Kol Nidrei is but I suspect not very.  

[2] For technical reasons our Sages suggest one should sin in private. Sinning in public can lead to a desecration of G-d’s name. One who feels the urge to sin should “go to a place where he is not known, wear black clothes, cover himself in black and do as his heart desires, but he should not desecrate the name of Heaven in public” (Kiddushin 40a). In more modern parlance one should take off their head covering and do what is necessary to hide one’s Jewish identity.

[3] This is the accepted view. Fascinatingly, the Tosafists, the medieval greats of Ashkenaz, understand that one is allowed to eat the cheeseburger but one who gives us his life instead is meritorious.