Elul is upon us.
This time of year we start to talk about forgiveness for our transgressions. We start asking for mechilah, a clean slate, from those we have wronged. We’re leading up to the Yom Kippur service, when we read each “al cheit” (for the sin of…) with a corresponding strike to the chest. Transgressions as they relate to God. Transgressions as they relate to people. For the sins that we did knowingly and those we did by accident. Those in public, those in private. Those willfully and those carelessly.
I say all this with a fist to my heart, as if I am beating myself up for each listed sin. Al cheit, al cheit, al cheit.
I struggle with this time of year. There’s so much heaviness that’s put upon it, and so my mind races, trying to make sense of how to approach my transgressions without going into a complete panic.
Here are some of the things I think about.
For starters, what is true mechilah? Why do I ask for it? It can’t be only about cleansing my soul so that my name will be written in the Book of Life. That would be the equivalent of a child who only says he’s sorry so that he can avoid punishment and get his screen time back.
I can speak only for myself. I don’t believe that seeking mechilah is just about asking for a clean slate. True mechilah, for me, is a step beyond an apology. It’s an apology-plus. It’s when I realize that I wronged someone and I own up to it. It’s when I notice the difference between apologizing because someone was harmed by my actions and apologizing because I was wrong, and then admitting that I’m guilty on both accounts. Only then do I feel comfortable asking for a clean slate. And then I hope that the person from whom I seek forgiveness finds it in herself to agree to such a huge request.
In a way, apologizing is the flipside of gratitude. It’s saying: “I’m sorry for what I did to you” at the same time as “Yes, I do appreciate you, even though my actions might have made it seem otherwise.” And maybe in that respect I am asking that the gratitude, and not just the apology, might allow for a clean slate between me and the one whom I offended.
But do I always know when I have wronged another person? I may have no idea what’s going on with a person that might contribute to them being hurt or saddened by something I did. I never know, and that’s the only thing I know about it. All I see is the world through a straw. I know so little of what’s going on with others around me, and even if they do tell me, there’s always more than can ever be expressed in words. There’s always more beneath the surface. As a highly sensitive person myself, this I know well.
Speaking of words, I find that although it’s certainly important to watch the words I use so as not to offend, sometimes an offense is more subtle than that. Sometimes it’s nonverbal. And sometimes it’s a little bit of both.
Take the topic of weight, for example. There are so many things that can go wrong here. Clearly, saying something negative about someone’s weight will offend, but I’m actually referring to when someone is complimented on his or her appearance. Here are some possible, unintended outcomes:
One. The person may get upset and wonder, “Well great, how did I look before now?”
Two. Relatedly, as a friend who had lost a considerable amount of weight once told me, “The less I weigh, the more people notice me.” That does not do wonders for a person’s self-esteem.
Three. The person might feel embarrassed and self-conscious, regardless of whether the remark was made in front of others or in a private conversation.
Four. A person listening nearby might be struggling with weight, and when she sees people paying attention to the person who lost weight, it causes self-consciousness and self-doubt.
So many possibilities.
Rule of thumb: Don’t come near the topic of weight with a 10-foot pole. You’re bound to offend someone. I probably offended someone just by using this as an example, and for that I apologize.
Another example? Anything you say or do at a shul kiddush. Or school dinner. Or camp night activity. Or recess. Or any school/camp/synagogue/community social event at all.
(Note to self: Don’t even bother going. I’m bound to offend someone.)
But that’s not fair! How am I to know who’s going to be offended by anything I say or don’t say, do or don’t do, when I’m not living inside their head? Again, I can relate to this from the vantage point of both parties.
Unintentional as it may be, we all go around stepping on each other’s toes. Is apologizing always the right thing to do? Am I supposed to apologize to every person who may or may not have been offended by something I said or did? Might there be some situations where it would make matters worse? Even when I know for sure that someone was hurt by my actions, isn’t it possible that an apology in and of itself might open up old wounds and let the salt pour right in? If I really care about how the person I offended feels, then maybe it would be better for them that I actually did not apologize.
These are questions I’ve considered but haven’t been able to answer. So then I wonder, maybe sometimes it’s not necessarily about apologizing for something that may or may not have offended someone, but about my being mindful for the future. I try to imagine what it would be like not to have to say sorry for the same things over and over again each year. I try to imagine how it might feel to stop being in that revolving door of “I’m sorry”s, and instead be corrective to prevent a next time around. I strive to be the best me possible, both in intention and action.
Like I said, I can speak only for myself. And for me, I don’t always know if apologizing for something I may or may not have done or for something I definitely did would make matters worse.
Either way, to me this time of year is about real soul searching. And real soul searching is not for the sole purpose of knocking my chest with al cheit during the Yom Kippur service — though that is, indeed, a part of it — but also for the purpose of being thoughtful and mindful and sensitive to those around me.
I also think it’s important to be sensitive to myself and my own shortcomings, and to make self-forgiveness a priority, as well. Included in this time of year is to request mechilah from myself and to grant that mechilah. To give my own self that clean slate. I may be striking my chest with a list of one al cheit after another, but this doesn’t mean that I have to beat myself up for the same thing over and over again.
I’m human. I make mistakes. But I can learn from them and keep trying to do better.