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The other day I had breakfast with a dear Jewish friend. We were discussing the month of Elul, the month that includes the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. She told me about a time as a child when she told her father she couldn’t think of anyone she had harmed (which is part of Jewish practice at this time of year). Her father looked at her sternly and simply said, “You aren’t perfect. Think about it.”
In Judaism we must ask those we have harmed for forgiveness before we ask G-d to forgive us. Suddenly I realized that I also had given cursory thought to those I might have harmed—and no one initially came to mind. But at breakfast with my friend, family, friends, even Ricochet friends started to appear in my thoughts: a person I had corrected because I felt they’d done something inappropriate; another had done something foolish and I gave her a piece of my mind. The list went on. I realized I had my work cut out for me!
So I made it my mission to learn everything I could about forgiving: what was the precise time to do it, what were the correct steps, what was significant enough to ask for forgiveness. What if a person had done something that I believed was wrong! Then I wondered what would happen if a person refused to forgive me; if that person got angry at me for even asking. Finally I said to myself, “STOP!” I suddenly realized that all these mind games were just steps for avoiding the true meaning of forgiveness and simply taking action. I understood that fear and anxiety were driving my ruminations.
I remembered a situation about 25 years ago when I asked my mother for forgiveness. She wasn’t an easy woman, and I was a difficult daughter in my treatment of her. Then (and I don’t know if this was around Yom Kippur), I realized I had to let go of all my grievances toward my mother. She had done her best. I had held on to a dream of the perfect mother, which she simply couldn’t fulfill; no one could. It was time to acknowledge my hurtful behavior toward her over the years, acknowledge my love for her, and ask for her forgiveness.
I was terrified of taking this step. I decided to write my confession and appeal for forgiveness in a letter, so that she would not be caught off guard and she would have time to think about my request. I sent the letter and told her I would call her. Those three days were agonizing: I assumed that she would rage at me and refuse to forgive me. When I finally called her, she said, “Sue, it’s okay. I knew we’d work it out someday.” I was stunned, relieved and tearful as we talked about our thorny relationship. It was then that the healing began and love was renewed.
In recalling this story, I remembered that the meaning of forgiveness is teshuvah. Although it is sometimes translated as “forgiveness,” my Torah study partner reminded me that the word actually means “turning around,” or “turning toward.” When G-d knows that we are willing to own up to our unkind words and behavior, to make amends, ask for forgiveness and heal a relationship, we draw closer to G-d. Our spiteful actions separate us from others, and therefore separate us from G-d. When we can let go of our need to be right, to be superior, to be powerful, freedom and gratitude arise. And G-d can then forgive us.
The month of Elul encompasses much deeper meaning than I’ve expressed here; I am still a novice at learning the meaning, rituals and observance of these sacred Jewish holidays. Yet I continue to be incredibly blessed by those who support me on this journey. Hat tip to @frontseatcat for encouraging me to write more about this holy time of year.