In less than three weeks, we will celebrate the New Year on the Hebrew calendar with the holiday of Rosh Hashana, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
This month leading up to Rosh Hashana is called Elul. There are no holidays during Elul; but the entire month has been connected by the tradition to those ten days that begin the new year.
One of the names for the ten day period that begin with Rosh Hashana and end with Yom Kippur is Aseret Yamei HaT’shuva, the Ten Days of Repentance. It is an annual exercise in self-improvement, looking back on the year that has just ended, and recognizing where we have ‘missed the mark’ in trying to live up to the potentials with which we have been endowed.
In preparation for that exercise, during the month of Elul we are called upon to engage in a cheshbon nefesh, literally an accounting of the soul: have we lived up to our obligation to do our best, in exchange for all that we have been given?
Ideally, we should be engaging in such thoughts every day. Some try to do so as part of their bedtime ritual, looking back on the day and judging how well they did. The great advantage of such a practice is, of course, that the day’s events are still fresh in our minds.
But let’s face it: remembering to do that every night is difficult, and I would guess that few people remember to do so. The Torah, therefore, sets aside one day a year for all of us to come together and support each other as we try to account for an entire year.
By calling on us to begin our cheshbon nefesh, our accounting of the soul, during the entire month leading up to the Ten Days, the tradition gives us a total of forty days to prepare.
The liturgy of Yom Kippur tells us that God forgives any sins we have committed only against God, just because we ask to be forgiven. But the liturgy also teaches that, if a sin we have committed resulted in hurting or harming another person, God will not forgive that sin until we go to the person we have harmed and ask for their forgiveness.
This is probably the second most difficult task of our soul accounting. I often think that the most difficult is when someone else has hurt us, and that person comes to us and asks us to forgive them. Sometimes it is difficult to give up the feeling of being wronged, of blaming the other person and thinking of ourselves as victims, or as better than the person who sinned against us.
But one of the central ideas of our Jewish tradition is that we should try very hard to emulate God; and, as noted above, if God forgives when someone asks, we should be willing to do so as well. It is an act of chesed, of mercy, to do so; and we will feel a whole lot better when we let go of our hurt and anger. This will allow both the person who sinned, and the person who was sinned against, to experience spiritual growth, and to enter the new year with a clean slate, ready to more closely live up to the potential God has given us to be partners with God in tikkun olam, in fixing this seriously broken world in which we must live.
It is Elul, time to begin our accounting of the soul, to seek and grant forgiveness, and to prepare for the new year that is about to begin.