Elul and Teshuva

The Month of Elul and Teshuva

by Jacques Abourbih

Based on Tomer Devorah (“Palm tree of Deborah”)

By Rabbi Moshe Cordovero on the Attributes of G-d

Today is the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul.  Throughout this month, it is customary to do Tashlich. This can be done at any time—not necessarily on the afternoon of Rosh Hashananh as we customarily do it in our community since Isaac Abitbol and I revived this ritual some 25 years ago.

Why Taschlich on the banks of a body of water that must contain Fish? The Midrash says that we, like fish, are helplessly caught in the net of life. Tashlich is the symbolic disentanglement from that net holding us prisoner of ourselves.There are three Hebrew synonyms: “Selichah,” “Mechilah,” and “Kapparah,” all related to the idea of Teshuvah. Each represents a higher level of Teshuvah.

The word Teshuvah usually translated as “Repentance” is a word that really does not have meaning in Judaism. It is more a Western world concept borrowed from Christian tradition. The word Teshuvah literally means “Returning”—just like the curve of the Shofar whose curve reminds of the “bent back” on the road to Teshuvah, according to our Rabbis.

Even the sounds of the Shofar echo the conscious-stricken human voice and symbolize the hard work it takes to make Teshuvah: Tekiah a deep moan, Teruah, a wavering sob and Shevarim, a broken groan. These different sounds, according to folklore, special angels tenderly carry on behalf of the congregation to the very presence of the Divine throne on the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“Selichah,” translated as “forgiveness” is the first step that must be taken if someone has committed a transgression, whether it be against G-d or against Man. To ask for forgiveness is to say to the injured party, “I am sorry for what I did; I sincerely regret having done it, and I will never do it again.” The injured party‘s response is to believe that the petitioner is sincere and “open the door” for him or her to “come in.”

The Talmud requires that an individual, during the month of Elul and before Kol Nodrei must ask Selichah of others whom he/she wronged three times.  A person who refuses to do this is considered a cruel person. But a person who refuses the request of the petitioner is judged by the Talmud even more harshly.

The next level is “Mechilah,” usually translated as “wiping away”, is the response to the request: “Can we put our relationship back on the level which it was on before I sinned against you?” A positive response to this is difficult, but still within the reach of the human being.

“Kapparah” is usually translated as “atonement,” as in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is the response to the person who says, “My conscience will not let me live with myself, because of what I did to you and to our relationship.” It is the most difficult thing to admit. To respond positively to this is beyond human capacity. It is only G-d Who can reach inside a person and say “Be comforted! We can do this together”.

“Kapparah” is the climax of this three-part process, and the highest level of Teshuvah.

Yet, It is within reach only because of the Divine spark in each of us—our Neshama.  Neshama is that little atom of G-d within each of us that makes us “in Our image, in Our likeness”.

I learned this poignant lesson from my own father and teacher Saadia bar Yaacov Z”L.

My aunt Victoria and he had not spoken for months following one of those usual prosaic frictions that arise in the best families. On Erev Yom Kippur, my father reached for the phone and called my aunt Victoria. As they spoke, I could hear her sobbing at the other end.

Is there anyone you need to call on this month of Elul?