If you asked anyone of the Jewish faith, “What is the most important month in the Hebrew calendar?” he or she would undoubtedly tell you it’s the month of Tishrei. After all, Tishrei is jam-packed with holidays that run the gamut from dead serious to outright jubilation: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the Fast of Gedalya, Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret are all part of the mix. What could be more spiritually powerful than that?!
Yet I want to suggest that it is the month of Elul – though it contains no holidays at all – that may be the key to the entire year.
There is a concept in Judaism called hachana l’mitzvah, the preparation for a mitzvah. For example, rabbis recommend arriving early to synagogue in order to meditate and “get in the mood” for the prayers soon to follow. Holidays – Shabbat and Passover in particular – need a great deal of preparation that precedes the lighting of the candles. In the same vein, premarital counseling is crucial in order to equip the young couple with the tools they need to make their marriage work best.
The Jewish month of Elul: An end and a beginning
Elul, which begins shortly, is both an end and a beginning. It caps off the year gone by, and is the gateway to the year about to begin. By tradition, we focus during Elul on taking an account of our deeds just past, as well as “arming” ourselves for the Days of Repentance ahead. We try to repair relationships we might have damaged, even as we aspire to a new and inspired connection with God.
I BELIEVE that remembering – and forgetting – are the keys that unlock teshuva – repentance and return.
First, we must struggle to remember: Did we hurt someone during these last months but did nothing to make it right? Had we taken upon ourselves some task or obligation but failed to complete it? Did we drift away from a friend or family member or alienate a neighbor? If so, then we have to make it right; we have to sift through our actions of the past – no small task, to be sure – and try to return to a better place.
That is surely one reason Rosh Hashanah is officially known as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Memory. And if that means that, come Tishrei 1, God will be remembering our past misdeeds, then it behooves us to get the jump on God by being the first to remember, and repairing ourselves during Elul, so that our slate is clean, come the New Year.
I recall vividly that, some years ago, I was called upon to read the ketubah at a wedding. I began to look over the document so that I could familiarize myself with the names of the bride and groom, when suddenly a young man came and took the ketubah away, saying he needed to bring it to the officiating rabbi. I said nothing, but I assumed that the young man would soon be surprised to see me go up to the huppah for the reading. After the wedding, I looked for him but couldn’t locate him in the crowd.
Ten months later, just before Rosh Hashanah, he called me to apologize for having grabbed away the ketubah. I told him it was I who was worried that he might have been embarrassed, and I asked him to forgive me! We laughed about it; I thanked him for calling, and I congratulated him on his excellent ability to remember.
But while remembering is essential to righting the wrongs, it is equally – maybe even more crucial – to forget. We spend way too much time and energy harping upon the grievances of our past, holding on to silly arguments we had with a friend, business deals gone bad or lost opportunities on the road of life. The capacity to forget and move on is one of our greatest assets, and it can save us untold hours of hand-wringing and grit teeth. “Letting it go,” as the song says, prevents us from being frozen in regret and recrimination and dwelling on what we see in the rearview mirror instead of watching the road ahead.
In the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah, in the repetition of the Musaf Amida (the longest of the year!), we refer to God as Zocher kol hanishkahot, the One Who remembers all that is forgotten. The simple meaning, as we said, is that while we human beings have a limited capacity for memory, the Almighty has total recall; nothing slips by Him. That can be a rather frightening concept, one that could make us obsess over our shortcomings and thus impact negatively on our simhat yom tov, the joy of the holiday which is central to its celebration.
But Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, with his typical knack for seeing the positive in all things, puts a different and wonderful spin on this title. Says Rav Shlomo: most people, when we commit a serious sin, tend to remember that sin quite vividly. It bothers us, it may even haunt us throughout the year. If we fought with a friend, we’re reminded of it when we see or think of that person. If we violated the Shabbat, we’ll be reminded of it every Shabbat. And so, since we remember, there is no need for God to also remember those same misdeeds!
But the everyday positive things that we do, the little acts of care or kindness that we perform, those are what are hard for us to remember. The coin we casually drop in the tzedakah box, the smile we give to a passerby, the blessing of “Shalom!” with which we greet the person riding in the elevator with us – these are easily forgotten by us. But all is not lost; God surely remembers these forgotten merits, and He carefully places them in our file to be evidenced on our behalf during the Ten Days of Repentance.
So, as Elul dawns on us this week, don’t forget to remember all the tasks left undone, all the repair work needed to fix the broken relationships of the past. But, at the same time, remember to forget any trivial indignities you might have endured or any petty arguments that caused a rift or a rupture with friend or family.
That’s the invaluable prep work that will ensure a year of blessing and great memories.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]