In a few short weeks, we’ll begin the month of Elul. It’s the month before Rosh Hashanah, and generally we’re aware that it’s the month of repentance. But what does that mean, and what is the process?
Repentance in Judaism is the culmination of a number of steps. Elul marks the first of those steps. Over the course of the year, we go about our business and sometimes we do something we regret. We might take a minute to evaluate what we can do to fix it or how we can quickly move on from there. If we feel guilty about it, we can console ourselves with the thought that we, like everyone else, are simply human. Being human seems to be the catch-all approach to much of our poor judgment.
The month of Elul sections off an entire month for us to ask ourselves why we keep repeating patterns that are of no benefit to us or anyone else. Why do we respond the way we do whenever we’re in a particular environment? Repentance is the outcome of asking these fundamental questions. Being only human is our starting point, not our final conclusion.
To engage in Jewish repentance we must employ Jewish vocabulary: repentant and sinner. These are useful subcategories within being human – we just don’t like those words.
In today’s society, being called a sinner is a loaded term that speaks of religious fundamentalism. Yet in Hebrew, the terminology speaks volumes to clarify the intended word. The Hebrew word “chet” was an archery term that meant you missed the bull’s-eye. It doesn’t make you evil or an infidel. It simply means you must improve your aim next time.
Elul is the month where we can acknowledge that we often express ourselves in ways that miss the target. That makes us all sinners. Before we recognize that fact and accept that part of ourselves, we’ll be unable to engage in repentance of any kind. While we excuse our behaviour as just being human, we block ourselves from understanding that we must always continue to hone our skills and do better with our expressions and acts of loving kindness.
Engaging Jewishly in the month of Elul is hard work. We must identify what target we were intending to hit and how close we came. We must figure out how to readjust our aim and find the resources to give it another go. It’s not simply giving out blanket apologies to anyone we meet, but recognizing that we’re doing this because we sinned and we’re growing and improving.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Abahu states that “the place where people who repent stand can never be reached by those who have never sinned.” Of course, it’s impossible to live and never sin, but it’s certainly possible to live in ignorance of that fact. There’s no potential in simply being human, but there’s infinite potential in acknowledging that we have sinned.
Rachael Turkienicz is director of Rachaelscentre.org.