By Rabbi Anne Brenner
I spent the first three days of the Jewish month of Elul polishing a lamp that has hung in the upstairs stairwell of my home for eighty years. I thought that the lamp was made out of cast iron, but discovered, after applying a mixture of abrasive compounds and elbow grease, that it was crafted of shiny brass. Only after finishing the project, did I catch the appropriateness of the endeavor. For Elul is traditionally a month for polishing the soul. During this time we search ourselves for blemishes. Then, through the process of Teshuva, we polish and refine ourselves. The culmination of this refinement is the fast of Yom Kippur, from which we hope to emerge as shining and radiant as my restored lamp.
The word Teshuva, heard so often during the month of Elul and the first ten days of Tishre, is unfortunately translated as “repentance.” Thus the word carries a harshness that can lead us to feel shame about ways we may have “blown it” during the previous year. Teshuva, however, is more about cultivating compassion than about being held in judgment. Legend tells us that Teshuva was created even before the creation of the world. This suggests that built into the structure of the universe is the understanding that mistakes will be made, as well as the consolation that there is always the opportunity to begin again. Teshuva is as constant in our spiritual world as gravity is in our physical world. Judaism provides this “spiritual technology” for continually acknowledging both that “to err is human” and that we can repair our mistakes.
The first mechanism for this process of renewal (perhaps a more apt translation of the word “Teshuva”) is to cultivate compassion. Compassion is the theme of the chant that we sing over and over during the High Holidays:
“Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’Chanun, Eyrech Ahpayim, v’rav Chesed, v’emet,notzr chesed lalalfim, notzey avon, v’peshah, vchatah, v’nakay.
Adonai, Adonai, The Eternal, is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness and truth; keeping mercy for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and cleaning.”
The Torah teaches that God gave this chant to Moses, following the construction of the golden calf, when God’s rage was so great as to consider the destruction of the Hebrew people. God gave the chant as a protective agent, instructing Moses to use it as a kind of charm should God ever again get that angry with the people. Singing this chant was to insure that God’s attributes of compassion would triumph over God’s attributes of anger and serve as a shield.
I try to keep this chant going quietly in my head at all times. Setting my idle with these words running almost inaudibly in the background helps me to remember God’s presence and reminds me of the qualities of Holiness I seek to emulate. The volume rises whenever I am angry with myself, feeling that I have missed the mark or could have done better. I appeal to the God-like part of myself to be compassionate and not give over to judgment, anger, or despair. I find that in confronting a mistake or disappointment, it is much more effective to invoke compassion than judgment. I am much more likely to change for the better in an atmosphere of loving and compassionate acceptance than in one where I am made to feel shame.
Like all of us, in this year of coronavirus, I draw on all of my spiritual resources to see myself through. I remember times in the past that I have used this chant to see myself through other rough times. The chant was especially helpful to me in my work as a Red Cross Mental Health worker following Hurricane Katrina, as I watched the changing phases of the Elul moon through the broken Mississippi pines. I chanted to calm my inner responses of horror as I listened to the harrowing stories of survival shared with me in the aftermath of the storm. The words of comfort and compassion enabled me to soothe myself so that I could be a soothing presence for those who had lived the Katrina nightmare. The chant helped me channel raw anger into productive action as I raged at the ineptitude of public officials who continued to fail to provide adequate resources for relief and recovery in the Gulf coast region. Now it helps to quiet me as I listen in dismay to the distortions of the health care debate by those who would do well to take these words of compassion to heart.
When I had cancer this chant calmed me. It made it possible for me to shift my primary identification of self as physical being to a sense of myself as a soul. Aided by my understanding of the soul as part of God and therefore eternal, I took instruction from Psalm XX, which says, “Into God’s hands, I place my soul. God is with me, I shall not fear.” This helped me to face the unknown without fear or judgment.
Now I use this chant in my work as a Psychotherapist and Spiritual Director. I employ it as I listen to people who are being hard on themselves or who are suffering in some way. Listening in stereo, I blend the story they share with the elements of compassion that the chant asserts. Silently humming the sweet words of this chant as I listen to others, I pray that they will find peace, forgiveness, and resilience inside themselves. This is a riff on an aphorism of my New Orleans up- bringing, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Those pesky insects within are more likely to be tamed if a reprimand is sweet rather than acidic. Our High Holiday aspirations for ourselves are more likely realized when we polish our souls with love. My lamp will be hung at the close of Yom Kippur. Having been lovingly scrubbed, it will move downstairs, as if bringing the refined light of above to the lower places in which I live. Hopefully the light that shone above, but was obscured behind the encrustations of tarnish and time will be released to refresh our lives below, beaconing us, during the New Year, to bring light and compassion to each other and into the world.