One of the greatest lessons in forgiveness I ever witnessed came as my dad was dying. My family was gathered together in the hospital for over a week, and we made an effort to contact his friends and family so they could say goodbye. There were good conversations on the telephone, and several old friends stopped in to visit. But in one case, I knew it was going to be difficult.
Several years earlier, my dad had had a falling out with one of his oldest friends from high school. He and his family were people my brothers and I had grown up with — we shared Passover seders and holiday celebrations with them. The falling out was personal, and it was hard. But I also knew that, if possible, my dad would want to see them before he died.
The wife of the couple was someone I had maintained my own professional relationship with. I emailed her: “My father is dying. We’re at St. Joe’s Hospital. He’d really like to apologize.” They were there in 20 minutes.
Apologies were uttered. Hugs were shared. Tears were shed.
A few years later, when she passed away, I shared this story with her kids. I told them it was one of the greatest lessons in forgiveness I’ve ever learned. (And the hug we shared was one of the best I’ve ever experienced.)
According to the Talmud, the month of Elul, where we are now, is described as a particularly special time: Hamelech Basadeh, the sovereign is in the field — God, the Holy One, the life force of the universe, whatever you want to call it, is more available to us.
I like to think of Elul as a time of enhanced spiritual plumbing: the things that have blocked us and stopped us up get loosened; emotions flow more freely. And whether we’re talking about a house or a human body, when the plumbing works better, everything works better.
My Dad died in early December, almost three months after Elul. But the reason the spiritual plumbing works in Elul is the same reason it worked with him and his friends in the hospital: We’re confronting our mortality. We know the end is coming. And that puts things into perspective. Whatever we’re holding onto — we’re not going to take it with us. Whatever we haven’t let go of — now is our chance, our last chance, to do so.
My friend, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, wrote a great book recently called “On Repentance and Repair,” in which she points out that Jewish tradition distinguishes between teshuvah, the work of apology and turning back towards our best intentions, and selicha, forgiveness.
While other traditions may place a greater emphasis on the act of forgiveness, Danya reminds us that the Torah puts more weight on teshuvah: owning the harm we’ve caused, beginning to change, making amends, apologizing, and making different choices. Forgiveness may or may not happen; but teshuvah is within our control.
We’ve been talking about different aspects of teshuvah for the last several weeks on this show. We’ve done internal work to help us notice what we hear and see, how we judge, how we can be at home and at peace within ourselves. We’ve practiced attuning ourselves to others, sensing the bonds that connect us, how our actions might have an effect on someone else. With this last episode of Elul, the practice now becomes putting the pieces together — doing teshuvah.
As with so many journeys, the first step is often the hardest. In this case, that involves recognizing and acknowledging that we’ve caused harm to someone else. As Danya writes in her book, we often like to tell ourselves a story like, “I’m a good person!”
Our minds, tricky creatures that they are, can become invested in that story. And when the story gets threatened, we can get defensive. Our minds ask, “How could I have harmed anyone? I’m a good person, and good people don’t do bad things.”
Without our even knowing it sometimes, our minds can invest a huge amount of energy into resisting the truth–because, subconsciously, we perceive the truth as a threat to the story we tell about ourselves.
One of the reasons mindfulness practice is so helpful is because it allows us to get a little distance on our narrative. Yes, you’re a good person. And…good people also cause harm. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Being honest with myself and recognizing the harm I’ve caused doesn’t take away the good things I’ve done; it doesn’t make me any less of a human being. What it mostly does is take away the hold all that subconscious resistance has on the rest of my life.
When I get clear and own the pain I’ve caused someone else — with a healthy dose of self-compassion and love, and with an even higher amount of compassion and concern for the person I’ve harmed — that’s the first step on the road of teshuvah.
So this week, as we make our final preparations for Rosh Hashanah and the holidays to come, I want to invite you to join me in dedicating a few minutes each day to this first step of the teshuvah journey: recognizing and owning the harm I’ve caused. (As my own rebbe and teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss, used to say to us in rabbinic school: This is the part where I’m talking to myself and letting you listen.)
For me, that involves creating some quiet time of meditation and contemplation. I find a quiet spot. I close my eyes. I take several deep cleansing breaths and let my mind and body quiet down. And then I ask myself the question: When have I caused harm this year?
Oftentimes I find that, deep down, I’m already aware of harms I’ve caused: something I said in a work meeting or in a conversation with a family member that was unintentionally hurtful; a moment when I failed to keep a promise to someone else; a time I acted impulsively or selfishly without fully considering the effects my actions would have on another. I try to lower my resistance and let those moments arise in my mind. I try to notice how I feel.
And then, crucially, I try to greet these sensations as friends: Oh, hi, self-pity! Hello self-doubt! Welcome, self-recrimination! Hey there, desire to project my self-anger onto someone else! You’re all here. Welcome back.
And then, having recognized these emotions, I try to say, “You know what, guys? This year I’m really working on living in alignment with my kavana, my intention–to be more mindful and more compassionate. And so I’m going to set you aside right now, and I’m going to make some different choices.”
For me, this is the first, crucial step on the journey of teshuvah. It isn’t the end of the teshuvah process–there are also essential actions of accountability and repair that have to take place too. But this is the first step. It can certainly be easier said than done. But my hope is that it might offer you a starting point.
Blessings for the journey and shana tovah — a blessing for a good, sweet new year. I hope you’ll join us next time.