Yael Shahar

Elul: The forgiving month

Yes, we have a lot on our minds. And yes, we can be forgiven for being a bit short with each other, what with everything going on. But in order to be forgiven, we have to ask.

Tomorrow night, we enter the month of Elul, “the season of reconciliation.” It is a time of quiet, when some of our most iconic fruits–grapes and figs and olives–are nearing harvest. We are reminded that the deeds and thoughts that we have sown among each other are also coming to fruition.

We contemplate the results of what we’ve done and said, and sometimes we see that the outcome is not as we would have wished it to be. Perhaps we fought with the neighbors over a noisy party in the Spring. Or perhaps we spoke rashly to a co-worker in the heat of the moment. Perhaps we neglected to provide a kind word to a child when it might have made a difference.

And so we seek out those that we may have wronged in some way, and we do whatever we can to make amends—to restore trust. We go to the neighbor’s house with a loaf of fresh-baked bread and we sit down to eat it together and talk things over. We seek out the co-worker with whom we were short and tell her how much we appreciate her. We tell our families that they are loved beyond our ability to express…

Deeds, like crops, can be improved by the right fertilizer. And like crops, forgiveness can only grow in the right soil. In the case of a wrong between one individual and another, only the one who feels wronged can grant forgiveness. It is a very personal thing and requires courage on the part of the one asking and the one asked. And while no one is required to forgive the unforgivable, Jewish tradition counts it a transgression if the one asked refuses to grant forgiveness out of pettiness.

But all of this has meaning beyond the realm of the personal; any action that affects another person creates a bond between those two individuals, and this bond affects their communities as well. If there is pain between them, then the community also hurts. Perhaps on some level, the unity of life itself suffers from the disunity of its parts.

So we do what we can to make peace between individuals, and when we have done all that we can to restore a sense of balance and trust, we seek forgiveness for those wrongs that we can’t make right. We do this in the collective, so that no one will be singled out. Here too, we are enjoined to do whatever we can to make peace with our own hearts. As long as there is still pain inside of us, everything of which we are a part also suffers.

There is an ascending order in all this, beginning with outward connections in the real world, continuing to more inward connections with ourselves, and finally culminating with the most intimate connection of all–the relationship between the individual and God.  Other; self; God–it sounds easy, but sadly, it is not. Not every action can be undone; not every breach in the fabric of being can be made whole.

And so we are granted one day each year that is set aside for this purpose, to help us to express the hurt inside–the sadness for the might-have-beens and the missed opportunities, the regret for what cannot be repaired. We go into it with every hope that somehow it will all be put right, that somehow our very regret will turn back the tide of causality and allow a better outcome. That special day is Yom Kippur, but the process begins now, on Rosh Hodesh Elul. It is now that we decide what sort of harvest we will reap.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.