364. Repent!: The obligation to confess our wrongdoings to God
…they shall confess the sin they did… (Numbers 5:7)
Nobody is perfect. We all do something wrong from time to time and when we do, part of making things right is to verbally confess our sins to God. (We only confess to God, not to any sort of intermediary!) A person should explicitly express what he did wrong and ask forgiveness; there’s no sense in being coy or beating around the bush because God already knows what we did! So, for example, Moshe was explicit in asking forgiveness for the Jews building a golden calf (Exodus 32:31). When a person brought a sin offering (korban chatas), he said his confession over the offering.
The obligation to confess our wrongdoings includes both matters between man and God (such as Temple trespass) and matters between one person and another (such as theft or slander). Of course, confession alone doesn’t clear the slate. A person also has to make restitution to the party he wronged and commit to not continuing his improper ways. It is a mitzvah even for those condemned of a capital crime to confess prior to execution. (Conversely, a person should not confess to something he knows he did not do.)
The reason we confess verbally is not for God, Whom we already said knows exactly what we did. It’s for us, to humble us and help us to regret our misdeeds. The oral expression of sin is an integral part of the repentance process, but so is resolving to change our ways (see Isaiah 55:7, Talmud Taanis 16a, et al.). Yom Kippur is a day specially (though not exclusively) designated for confession, called “vidui,” and cleaning our spiritual slates. (One should also attempt to do so on his deathbed; what’s the worst that can happen? If he confesses and lives, no harm done – in fact, it may even be a good thing! But if he doesn’t confess and he dies, he won’t have undergone as thorough a repentance as possible.)
This mitzvah applies in all times and places. It is discussed in the Talmud in tractate Yoma on pages 36a-37a, 87b and elsewhere. It is codified in the Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim 606, and is #73 of the 248 positive mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos. It is #33 of the 77 positive mitzvos that can be fulfilled today as listed in the Chofetz Chaim’s Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar.