2016-08-31 / Religion Column

Using the month of Elul to truly reach out to others

Congregation Beth El

In high school, Elul was the time of year when someone who I perhaps had not spoken to for the previous year would grab my arm and say, “Mochel me,” meaning, “forgive me.” And I would say, “Of course. Mochel me as well?” And we would have forgiven each other for the slights, the stray thoughts, or the gossip, by which we harmed one another, but our relationship did not change, and we would continue in the coming year to be just as kind, unkind, and oblivious to one another as we had been prior.

This is the challenge of Elul, the Jewish month leading into the High Holidays beginning Shabbat, Sept. 3. We can go through the motions of teshuva, asking our friends for forgiveness and fasting on Yom Kippur, and nonetheless return to our lives unchanged. Throughout Elul, we blast the shofar each non- Shabbat morning. The sound is meant to penetrate our souls and stir us to repentance and renewal as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur loom.

This is the time of year that, starting over a decade ago when e-mail was becoming more and more mainstream, I would send a mass e-mail, Subject: “Seeking Forgiveness,” to nearly everyone I knew. The core of it read: “As the upcoming holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mark the Jewish season of repentance and renewal, I apologize for everything I have done that hurt, pained, or offended you, directly and indirectly, intentionally and unintentionally, over the past year and prior. If I have hurt you in any way, please talk to me about it. I want the opportunity to make up for what I’ve done. If there is something I did or said that you have not felt comfortable discussing with me, now is an opportunity to do so without any hard feelings whatsoever. Your feedback enables my growth.”

Every year, I received many responses to this message. They consisted of good wishes for Rosh Hashanah and comments about what a mensch I was, but never did someone respond with a grievance, which theoretically is what I was asking for. I always felt great about myself doing this, until my first months of Rabbinic School. Sitting in “Introduction to Halacha (Jewish Law),” my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Alexander, began a discussion on the laws of teshuva (repentance) by explaining how e-mails asking for blanket forgiveness undermine the process of reflection necessary to teshuva. I had sent my “Seeking Forgiveness” e-mail that morning.

In class, we read from the medieval Jewish codes detailing how in order to ask a person for forgiveness, you must articulate the wrong that you did and how my email and others like it shift this introspective responsibility away from us, enabling a person to feel that they have done their teshuva, without actually considering what wrongs, however minor, we might have done. Rabbi Alexander challenged us to, if we wanted to ask forgiveness by e-mail, enumerate our particular wrongs against a particular person. So that night, I sent just Rabbi Alexander a second email, Subject: “How I’ve wronged you this year,” listing 10 items including: gossiping; calling at inconvenient times; walking in late to class; and failing to RSVP, but still attending his son’s bris.

Within five minutes, I got a response from Rabbi Alexander, “Your teshuva will be easy…drop off an order of hot wings from Jeff’s?” Within the hour, I made my way to Jeff’s Gourmet Kosher Sausage Factory in Los Angeles, ordered hot wings to go, and delivered them to my teacher’s home.

I don’t send mass e-mails requesting forgiveness anymore. It boosted my ego, but did not help me grow into a better person. Sending one message to one teacher did.

If I was able to come up with 10 ways I had wronged my teacher, I’m confident that each of us can come up with multiple ways we’ve wronged those important to us, like our loved ones and business partners, our friends and our former, and perhaps future, friends. This Elul, as the shofar blasts in the synagogue, consider taking note of how you’ve wronged another, however slight. By naming our missteps, we are better equipped to act better when facing a similar circumstance. Make a call or send an e-mail, and you too may find yourself renewing a relationship, perhaps over kosher hot wings. s

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