Rabbi Rami explains why he encourages everyone to take part in asking for forgiveness during Elul, whether they practice Judaism or not.
I usually save my answers to questions about spiritual issues for my “Roadside Assistance” column in the print edition of Spirituality & Health magazine. This question is time sensitive, however, so I have decided to share the question and my answer with you here in “Roadside Musings.”
Dear Rabbi Rami,
My boyfriend is Jewish. I’m Methodist. We were having dinner last night and the topic of forgiveness came up. My boyfriend got a phone call in the afternoon from a cousin who reminded him that this was the Jewish month of Elul when Jews ask people they know—Jews and Gentiles—for forgiveness. He had called to ask my boyfriend for forgiveness. I was really excited by the idea of having a month devoted to forgiving people, but my boyfriend said he didn’t think Elul was about that. Can you help me out? Is Elul about forgiveness or not?
Yes, Elul is about forgiveness, but not the way you may imagine. Elul is the final month of the Hebrew religious calendar and leads into month of Tishri and the High Holy days of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, celebrates, among other things, the birthday of humanity and is a time to reassess what it means to be human. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a day of contrition where one seeks to realign oneself with the best of what being a human means: doing justly, acting kindly, walking humbly (Micah 6:8). You cannot make an honest assessment of your life or engage in effective realignment unless one first admits one’s failings. Elul is about admitting failings.
Elul is not about forgiving people who may have hurt you; Elul is about asking forgiveness from people you may have hurt. Notice I said, “may have hurt.”
During Elul you ask forgiveness from everyone you come into regular contact with saying something like, “If I have hurt you in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, deliberately or inadvertently, I ask for your forgiveness.” You may or may not have hurt this person. And even if you did, you may not even realize you did. So, we don’t specify the hurt caused, we simply acknowledge that we cause suffering to one another whether we mean to or not.
The gift of Elul is humility. By admitting my imperfect nature and asking for forgiveness, I humble myself before another human being. Whether or not the other forgives me, I am released from the burden of being perfect simply by admitting my capacity to be a jerk. This is why I encourage everyone to take part in asking for forgiveness during Elul. Whether you are a Jew or not is irrelevant. The practice of forgiveness during Elul is a gift I hope you and your boyfriend will share with one another and everyone you know.
Want more? Read our story “The Power of Practicing Forgiveness.”