“Return Us” – A Daily Prayer

Image: Two people and an open Torah scroll. (Photo by Linda Burnett)

Return us to Your Torah and draw us to Your service,

and in complete repentance restore us to Your Presence.

Blessed are You, Adonai, who welcomes repentance.

Mishkan Tefilah, p 84

In English, this prayer doesn’t immediately signal that it is about repentance, but in Hebrew the first word gives it away: Hashiveinu. Hashiveinu means “return us” but nestled in the heart of it is the root shuv, which can mean “turn” or “return” but often something having to do with repentance. The word teshuvah (repentance) comes from the same root: see the shuv right at its heart?

For Jews, repentance is all about turning and return: turning away from one behavior, turning towards another, returning to the values of Torah. Turn is a key image:

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”

Ben Bag Bag, in Pirkei Avot 5.22

In Ben Bag Bag’s famous line, there is no shuv, instead he’s using the verb hafuch: turn it over, turn it over, which is what we do with the etzim, the “trees” of a big scroll. We turn and we overturn. We turn so that we do not run in circles. Turning returns us to the beginning, to the heart, to the end of the scroll and then back again: repentance as homecoming.

There is comfort in this blessing. “Return home! Your place at the table is waiting!”

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#BlogElul – Forgive

Image: Two people embracing. (Antonio Guillem /Shutterstock)

After the Israelites reject the Land in the episode of the Spies, God is angry, talking about wiping them all out and starting over with Moses. Moses replies with soothing words, reminding God of the relationship at stake.  God immediately calms and replies:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, סָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ

And the Eternal said, “I have forgiven, as you asked.” – Numbers 14:20

Moses recognized that the anger God expressed came from hurt. The Israelites were afraid, and rejected the gift of the Land. Moses spoke to God’s hurt, and God forgave.

There are many points to get from this famous story, but this one simple verse is a pithy example of what Jews do during Elul: We ask for forgiveness, and we grant it to others. 

It does not change the fact that one person hurt the other. All it does is create an opportunity to reset the relationship.

I go through the month asking, “Who is angry with me, and why? Do I own any tiny (or not so tiny) part of that anger – did I do anything?” If I can apologize for that tiny part, and ask forgiveness, perhaps it will open up a dialogue in which both sides can be healed. Certainly without this action, nothing will improve.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But it is always worth a try.

Counting the Bites

The Grudge?
The Grudge? (Photo credit: riacale)

When I was a child growing up in Tennessee, I used to count the mosquito bites on my body. I could tell you exactly how many I had at any given time, where they were, and which ones itched the most. I could not escape the bugs, but I could keep a perfect accounting of what they were doing to me.

I was on the watch for every slightest itch. I knew when one bit me, and I knew when the bite began to tingle. I paid careful attention to each of them. Because I was always thinking about them, I could not resist scratching at them. As a result, I was miserable most of the summer.

It was years before it dawned on me that some of the misery was the fault of the mosquitoes, and some of it was my own. By focussing all my waking attention on those bug bites, I drove myself crazy. As an adult, I learned that the less attention I paid to them, the less they bothered me. Now I will sometimes get a bothersome bite, but mostly, I notice them, chalk them up to the fact that this world is not created just for my comfort, and go about my business.

The same can be true of hurts from other people. We can choose to keep careful track of them and to catalog every twinge. Some of us monitor every slight like I did those bug bites, focussing attention on them, picking at them, scratching at them, and complaining to the world about our catalog of grudges and woe.

The good news is that unlike the mosquitoes, there’s a cure. The cure is the month of Elul, the month for apologies and mending broken relationships. When someone comes to me and says, “I’m sorry I never thanked you for that favor” I have the choice to accept the apology. If there is something I need to make things right, I can ask for it. I don’t have to trust that person again, if they are not trustworthy, but I can still be healed of that bothersome little wound.

I can also choose to cherish the anger. I can refuse an apology, and say that nothing will ever make it right. And that may even be true: some hurts go very deep. But do I want to carry it forever? Do I really want to keep scratching at it? Or do I want to make room for some healing, not for the person who offended, but for myself?