Elul is the last month of the Jewish year. A month from tonight will be Rosh HaShanah. Between now and then, there is work to do. It’s time for a personal inventory.
Tonight I will say my prayers and look at that dark sky. Tonight, I will ask the questions and I will not rush to the answers, because now there is time to let the true answers emerge:
Against whom might I have sinned in the past year?
Some of them are people I know personally. I avoided them, failed to return their calls, whispered about them, excluded them, hurt their feelings, embarrassed them, neglected them, or ignored them. I failed them in some way, large or small.
Some of them are people I don’t know personally. I dismissed them as a group. I thought I knew all I needed to know. I made pronouncements about them. I forgot that “they” are individuals with hopes and dreams, each of them some mother’s child. I forgot that they are made in the Divine Image, just like me.
This first week, I will make an honest effort to identify all the people towards whom I need to make teshuvah. I will figure out, too, what behaviors and attitudes I will need to change in order to make teshuvah, a genuine new path. I will think about what I can change, and what I cannot, to whom I can apologize and for whom an apology would only cause more hurt. In the latter case, I will need to think even harder what to do, in order to put wrongs right.
Before I can do any of this, I need to sit and think and be honest with myself. That is my task this first week of Elul.
For sins against God the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against human beings the Day of Atonement does not atone until the injured party has been appeased. – Mishnah Yoma 8:9
Rabbi Channanya bar Papa asked Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, what is the meaning of the verse (Psalm), “As for me I will offer my prayer unto Thee in an acceptable time “? He replied, “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance are always open.” – Devarim Rabbah, II.
I’m a perfectionist, very hard on myself. If I goof up, my anger with myself is beyond all reason. This is a not attractive, but it is the way I am.
When I was a young woman, I believed that mistakes were fatal. Mess up, and no one will ever love me again. Ever. Go to Hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200. The real problem, of course, was getting me to ever love me again. And in the meantime, because I was flopping around in an agony of guilt, I’d hide or lie or get defensive, or do anything to try to escape getting a cross word from someone else, because I thought I couldn’t bear it – I was already my own private Spanish Inquisition. In the meantime, the wrong would compound like interest in a banker’s wildest dream: the person I offended or hurt would be more hurt.
Judaism offers me something wonderful: an actual plan for dealing with my mistakes. It gives me the gift of teshuvah (repentance.) When I make a mistake, when I do something wrong, I just have to follow the steps of teshuvah:
LEAVE THE SIN I have to recognize that what I did was wrong and I have to resolve to make teshuvah.
REGRET I have to be genuinely sorry and embarrassed that I did such a thing. This step I do quite well – a Catholic childhood and a Jewish adulthood add up to a finely tuned duet of guilt. My trouble was that I used to stop here, wallowing in misery. This is not the place to stop! Move quickly to the next step:
SINCERE APOLOGY AND REQUEST FOR FORGIVENESS I have to go to the person I offended or hurt or failed in some way, and take responsibility for my actions. Taking responsibility also means listening to their reaction. Then I have to ask for forgiveness.
CONFESSION BEFORE GODThen, having apologized, I have to go through the whole thing again, aloud, before God. Early on, I was suspicious of this step; it seemed excessive. I have found, though, that without it I lack the resources to make a good job of the last step:
RESOLVING NEVER TO REPEAT THIS SINThis requires more than a wish; it requires a plan. I have to figure out how I am not ever going to see a repeat of this particular failure, and I have to put that plan into action.
The gift is, that when I do a good job of teshuvah, that crushing, tearing misery of guilt will lift. I will feel better, and what’s more, so will some of those people against whom I sinned.
Lately I’ve been going through a patch of sins. They’ve been largely sins of disorganization, and they have come about because my workload has increased and I have not set myself up to be adequately organized. Other errors were not intentional, but they affected other people, nevertheless. So now I’m following up with a patch of teshuvah: noticing the messes, feeling mortified, apologizing and doing what I can to make things right, having some serious prayer sessions, and making plans for change. Not fun now, but the results are worth it: while I will always be sorry I messed up (I’d rather be perfect, after all!) I won’t feel that gut-wrenching guilt.
I’m sharing this because I suspect I am not the only person who wants to disappear through the floor or hide under the furniture every time she fouls up. If any of this sounds familiar, you might want to give teshuvah a try. We have a season of it, of course, every late summer and fall, but why wait? Relief from your pain is only a few steps away: the gates of repentance, they say, are always open.
If you are a newcomer around Jewish community right now you’re probably hearing a lot about Elul. It’s the month when Jews prepare for the High Holy Days (arriving the evening of Sept 16). It began just last weekend. During Elul and the High Holy Days, we work to make teshuvah, to return to the right path.
Teshuvah literally means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah” we notice what we’ve done wrong, we acknowledge that it is wrong, we take responsibility for it, we do what we can to apologize and make amends, and then we make a plan for not doing it again.
2. SIN is a different concept in Judaism than in Christianity. If you are from a Christian background, you need to know that the English word “sin” is a translation of two different words in Latin and in Hebrew, and the original words mean different things. The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that you aimed at something and you missed. In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person you are for doing something, the focus looks forward to aiming more carefully when you take the next shot.
Very Important:The point of the season is not to beat myelf up, it’s to make myself better. Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better. (Remember, in Judaism the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind.)
3. PEOPLE are a prime concern during the process of teshuvah. I need to go through my address book and think, is there anyone I have treated badly? Have I apologized? (The only time an apology is not required is if it would cause greater pain.) Is it possible to make restitution, if that is appropriate? The tradition is very clear that it is essential we apologize to those we have offended or injured and do our best to make things right. If they will not accept an apology, or if something cannot be made right, then we have to do the best we can.
4. It is possible to sin against MYSELF, as well. Have I treated my body carelessly, either by neglect or by abusing it? Do I follow my doctor’s orders? For any of these things, I need to take responsibility, and to think about change.
5. Sins against GOD also require teshuvah. As a Reform Jew, I may or may not keep the commandments in a traditional way. Whatever my practice, it needs to be genuine: I should not claim to be more observant than I am. Which mitzvot do I observe? Are there mitzvot I think I should observe, but don’t? Why don’t I? What could I change so that I will observe that commandment?
6. ADJUSTMENTS Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How am I going to do better in the coming year? Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change. A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.
7. DON’T GO CRAZY. As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat yourself up, it’s to make the world better by making your behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. If the list is overwhelming, pick one or two things and then take action.
8. PRAYER. During Elul the shofar is sounded at morning services in the synagogue on weekdays. Some people find that the ancient sound of the ram’s horn “wakes them up.” That may sound silly, but try it and see. Towards the end of Elul, on a Saturday night, there is a beautiful service called Selichot (Slee-CHOT) in which we gather as a community to read through prayers and lists that will help us identify the things we need to improve. If you can, attend; it can be a big help.
These eight elements can help you have a fruitful Elul. Each year is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past.
L’shana tovah: May the coming year be a good year for you!