Confession is an essential part of penitence. We feel a sense of guilt; articulate it in confession and resolve to expiate it by acts of righteousness.
The alphabetical pattern of the two confessions, Ashamnu and Al Chet, seems strange. How can thoughts and words be really sincere and spontaneous if they have to fit into an artificial framework?
Yet such is the skill of the liturgical authors that we are not really conscious of their literary constraints.
The reason that prompted this reliance on the order of the aleph-bet (a characteristic of the High Holyday prayers) is prosaic. It was simply that authors and editors were concerned to provide an easy aid to memory in days before printing, when few people could afford prayer books.
Some also saw in the use of the alphabet a suggestion that Israel had violated the Torah from A to Z, from beginning to end.
The mystics took this idea further when they advised the worshipper, “Make the aleph-bet your advocate; let its letters help in formulating your pleas before the Divine Judge”.
A deeper question: why recite a confession at all, when God, the All-Knowing, is well aware of our deeds?
The answer may be that the value of confession is to man, not to God. It is we – not God – who need to be reminded of our lapses. It is our memory which is fallible, not His.
The point is made by the Midrash: “From the moment a person is willing to see himself as he is, and to make the admission, ‘I have sinned’, the powers of evil lose their control over him”.
As Louis Jacobs puts it, in the process of confession “we discover not alone that in some respects we are worse than we fondly imagined ourselves to be, but we discover too, our potentialities for good, that we are in God’s hands, that he knows our nature and does not make impossible demands on us… in the jargon of our day we have to live with ourselves.
“To be sure, this involves that we try hard to become better than we are, but it also means that we give up trying to be better than we can be.”
We confess our shortcomings to God alone: “From all your sins, before the Lord shall you be clean”. No-one else may mediate between man and God or claim a share in forgiving sins. Every human being has the privilege – and duty – of direct communication with God, a thought which filled Rabbi Akiva with ecstasy, as he exclaimed: “Happy are you, O Israel! Before whom are you made clean, and who makes you clean? It is your Father in Heaven!”
On Yom Kippur God Himself pleads for us. He knows the earnestness of our endeavour to strive upwards. He speaks for us before His own court.
On earth we have advocates too. Before the Torah was given, the Almighty demanded assurances that His word would be obeyed. Israel offered the Patriarchs as guarantors, but God was not satisfied. Even the great prophets were not enough. Finally Israel said, “Our children shall be our guarantors!” and God was content.
Children are our guarantors in every generation if we bring them up with solid values.