Love in the time of Elul


I confess there’s something that’s always bothered me about this time of year, when we put such a big emphasis on reflecting on our mistakes. Why only now? Isn’t this something we should be doing all year? As a community, we certainly do plenty of it, through the very act of constantly challenging one another.

We don’t wait for the month of Elul to expose our communal failures. We do it every day on Facebook, on blogs, in our community papers, in letters to the editors, at our Shabbat tables, at conferences and anywhere else we come into contact with Jews with whom we disagree.

The essence of this time of year, however, is very personal, and it calls for repentance — the notion that after we identify our mistakes of the past year, we must repent to God and to those we have hurt.

But if we have to repent, why wait a whole year? 

Wouldn’t it be better to ask for forgiveness promptly, while the mistakes are still fresh in everyone’s mind and before they have a chance to fester?

This is why the year-end ritual is often not taken seriously, with many people asking for mechilla (forgiveness) just to be safe, without being exactly sure how they messed up.

I understand the religious timing. The 40 days that comprise the month of Elul and the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur symbolize the 40 days some 3,300 years ago at Sinai when our ancestors wondered if God would ever forgive them for their fling with the Golden Calf.

When Moses came down from the mountain on the day that is now Yom Kippur to announce that God had indeed forgiven the Jews and given them a second chance (and a second set of tablets), it gave these 40 days a halo of Divine goodwill.

“During the month of Elul, G-d is more accessible, so to speak,” Rabbi Yossi Marcus writes on AskMoses.com. “During the rest of the year He is like a king sitting in his palace, receiving guests by appointment only. … Not so during Elul. Then the King is ‘out in the field.’ He’s in a good mood and anyone can come and talk to him. The protocol of the palace is discarded.

“Elul is the time when we are given a leg up, a Divine boost, in our spiritual careers.”

I get that, but it still bothers me. First, God can’t forgive us for our sins against other people, and those people are always available if we want to seek forgiveness. And two, as far as our sins against God, shouldn’t an all-powerful Creator always be in the field to listen to our pleas and help our “spiritual careers”?

Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that we took more of a yearlong approach to the spiritual staples of Elul and the High Holy Days. What, then, could we focus on at this time of year? What spiritual staple could we add? 

I would vote for love.

Yes, love.

It’s a word Christians use religiously, but Jews evidently find too shmaltzy and nebulous.

But here’s the point: Until we remind ourselves of what and why and whom we love, we can’t truly repent and, ultimately, renew ourselves, which is the highest purpose of the High Holy Days. Love elevates and deepens the whole process.

The more we love, the better we repent, the deeper we renew.

We can deepen our love in countless areas. There is our love for the gifts God has given us; our love for the world He has created, with all its imperfections; our love for our people and our story, with all our imperfections; our love for our family, our Torah, our friends, our community, our soul mates, and the needy stranger; our love for repairing the world.

Just as we delve into Torah study, we can delve into love. We can study what our Sages, holy books and commentators say about love. We can contemplate the unique power of this commandment and why it’s a lot more complicated than just saying or thinking, “I love you.” 

By developing a deeper spiritual and intellectual attachment to love, we may also find it easier to ask for forgiveness as well as to forgive.

Of course, the more we refine and practice love, the less we’ll hurt people and have to ask for forgiveness in the first place. 

Elul itself suggests love. In Hebrew, the word is also an acronym for “I am my Beloved and my Beloved is mine” (“Ani l’dodi v’dodi li”), the famous quote from Song of Songs 6:3, where the Beloved is God and the “I” is the Jewish people. What better way to honor the month of Elul than through a reaffirmation of our love for all God has given us, including love itself?

Jews are very good at the tough stuff — the criticism, the tough love, the arguing, even the diligent davening. Maybe what we need now, in preparation for the hard work of repentance, is to immerse ourselves in the even harder work of internalizing that elusive and transcendent commandment we call love.

How could God not love that? 


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

High Holy Days: The curse of being right


How many of us have been going around during these Days of Repentance apologizing to those we have wronged during the past year? Be honest. Have you made your list of the people you have hurt and the offenses that have hurt them? When you have apologized, have you settled for the classic cop-out: “If I have hurt you in any way, please forgive me”? Or have you simply asked for mechilla — forgiveness — and moved on?

Here we are facing one of the most important acts of the Jewish tradition —asking forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed against God’s children, and for which God cannot forgive us — and so many of us are left bewildered, paralyzed, distracted.

It’s so much easier to ask God for forgiveness than to ask another human.

If you lost your temper with your mother, or made too much noise for the neighbors, or were rude with a customer, or flaked out on your brother, or ignored your wife when she needed you, or yelled at your kid who deserved better, or mistreated your business partner, or bullied one of your suppliers, will you go to each one individually and ask for their forgiveness for that specific offense?

Why is it so difficult to say, “I’m sorry, I screwed up”?

I’m no psychiatrist, but I have this theory that one of the greatest human pleasures is to be right. In fact, it’s more than a pleasure — it’s a deep need. Being right is like an emotional fortress that we build for ourselves to provide shelter against a cold and scary world. The minute we sense that we’re “wrong” about something, we feel the walls of this fortress start to crumble. The enemy called Doubt has breached the walls and threatens to destabilize our lives. 

That’s why it can be so hard to say, “I’m sorry.” An apology is an admission that we’re wrong. It’s as if we were attacking our own fortress of certainty.

This certainty makes sense for some core principles and ethics, but when it infiltrates all of our views and our general attitude toward life, we pay a heavy price.

For one thing, certainty stifles curiosity and leads to a duller life. If you spend most of your time with people who agree with you and reinforce your certainty, how interesting is that?

But much worse, certainty makes us do things we end up regretting. When do we get angry and say hurtful things? When we’re sure we’re right. It’s like a narcotic that hypnotizes us into acting like someone else. I’ve seen kind, civil people get really angry when their positions of absolute certainty are challenged.

It’s easy to be humble when you know for sure you’re wrong, as when you’re facing a traffic cop who’s about to nail you for burning a red light. But what about when you know for sure you’re right, as when you’re sitting across from a Romney or an Obama supporter and all you want to do is throw that baba ganoush salad their way?

And what if you end up hurting that person in some way? Come the Days of Repentance, will you apologize to them, even though you know for sure you were right? 

How many of those moments have happened to us this past year that we wish we could take back? A rude e-mail? A sarcastic remark? A hurtful outburst?

Do we have the strength to breach the walls of our fortresses and say, “I was wrong”?

I once heard a rabbi say that Jewish holidays are annual reminders of lessons we must apply throughout the year. So, if we’re having trouble saying “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong” during these Days of Repentance, it’s surely because we haven’t had much practice during the year.

But here’s a comforting thought: The guilt works both ways. People can be as bad at receiving apologies as they are at giving them. Why? Because we’re all afflicted to a certain extent with the “curse of being right,” which makes it so very tempting to receive an apology as further proof that we are, in fact, in the right.

One of my favorite tests of character is to see how someone responds to an apology for something that really hurt them. If they accept the apology with grace and a generous spirit, they’re my kind of people. But if they use the apology to rub it in and show how right they are, well … let’s just say I won’t go out of my way to befriend them.

Maybe, then, this is the missing ingredient in High Holy Days sermons encouraging us to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged.

We talk so much about the importance of making apologies, but too little about the importance of accepting them.

The truth is, they feed into each other. The better people accept apologies, the more people will make them, and the more sincere they will be.

And on that, I’m almost sure I’m right.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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