Would you believe that most Jews, including Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, don’t fully observe the High Holy Days?
I don’t mean the basic rituals, like going to synagogue, reciting the prayers, listening to the shofar and the rabbi’s sermons, having the holiday meals and saying the blessings. Most Jews do all that.
And I also don’t mean the spiritual element, like using this time of year to contemplate our mortality, reflect on the purpose of our lives, ask God for forgiveness and resolve to become better people and better Jews in the coming year.
No, what I mean is that most of us neglect what is arguably the most difficult and meaningful ritual at this time of year: Going to the people we’ve hurt, recognizing our hurtful actions and asking for their forgiveness.
This can be awkward and embarrassing, but our Jewish tradition has given us the perfect little window to help make this happen.
It’s called the month of Elul, a time for self-examination and repentance that culminates during the High Holy Days. As the month of Elul comes to a close and we begin the daily selichot (prayers of forgiveness), the mood of repentance becomes more urgent.
This is the moment we are about to enter right now: The zero hour of repentance — the Days of Awe before the Day of Atonement when one of our key obligations is to muster our courage and humility, go to someone we have wronged and say “I’m sorry, I messed up, please forgive me.”
The problem, of course, is that while we routinely do this with God, it’s a lot less comfortable to do it with our fellow humans.
But the other, more acute, problem is that our Jewish faith has this little wrinkle: God cannot forgive us for the sins we’ve committed against another person until we have first obtained forgiveness from that person.
Theoretically, this means a rabbi can tell you that until you obtain the forgiveness of those you have wronged, it’s useless to come to synagogue on Yom Kippur and ask God for His forgiveness — because He can’t give it to you.
If a rabbi did that, who would show up to the big show?
Most rabbis challenge us at this time of year to engage in things like more mitzvahs, more tikkun olam, more tzedakah, more Jewish learning and more spiritual connection. But in truth, if they really wanted to challenge us and encourage personal transformation, they’d pick the one mitzvah that requires the biggest emotional sacrifice: Having to suck it up in front of someone you’ve hurt and ask for their forgiveness.
To his credit, the ultra-Orthodox writer Jonathan Rosenblum, in an article from a few years ago, took his own denomination to task on this subject:
“Too often we arrive at Rosh Hashanah feeling woefully unprepared and wondering what happened to Elul. As Kol Nidre approaches, we rush around to those nearest and dearest to us to seek their forgiveness. But our requests lack the specificity that would indicate that we have given any serious thought to how we have wronged the particular loved one whose forgiveness is sought. Nor are our ritual assurances that we forgive with a whole heart worth very much.”
For too many of us, the modern-day excitement and pageantry of the High Holy Days — the marquee events, the glamorous sermons, the fancy clothes, the elaborate meals — have eclipsed the essential ritual, the one that deals with the pain we inflict on each other.
If I forget to pray one day, I’ve hurt no one except maybe for God, and I know He’ll forgive me. But if I offend, deceive, mock or dishonor another person, I’ve introduced real human pain into this world. And by hurting one of His children, I’ve also hurt God— who must surely be spending the holidays waiting for us to forgive each other.
I count myself in the group that God has been waiting for. I’ve done the basic High Holy Day rituals and recited the prayers asking God for His forgiveness. But when it came time to recognize my mistakes and ask people for their forgiveness, I’ve chickened out and used the classic cop-out: “If I did anything to hurt you, please forgive me.”
Like Rosenblum explains, “without a real chesbon hanefesh, some form of regular spiritual diary — of both the positive and negative — we are in no position to ask Hashem or our fellow man for forgiveness. Where there is no recognition of our failures, there can be no genuine regret, which is the starting point of teshuvah [repentance or return].”
On a more romantic level, Rabbi David Aaron of Jerusalem, in a recent article, reflected on the intimacy of forgiveness:
“The best time to remember your mistakes and wrongdoings and ask forgiveness of your beloved is in moments of love. The contrast between the bad times that were and the good time that is happening right now generates even greater feelings of love and appreciation.”
Imagine, then, the love and appreciation that would filter through our community this year if the sound of the shofar at Rosh Hashanah became our clarion call to seek out those we have wronged — whether it be our spouse, sibling, mother, father, child, friend, neighbor, colleague, teacher, client, business partner, supplier or stranger — and, with love and courage, admit our mistakes and ask for their forgiveness.
By returning to each other and paying our spiritual dues, we would repair our souls, enter the Day of Atonement with cleaner hands, reduce the amount of pain in our little worlds and allow God the chance to forgive us.
Not a bad way to kick off a new year.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.