We are in the middle of the Hebrew month of Elul, the month leading into the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement. Tradition teaches that during Elul, “the King” descends from the Heavenly castle and walks through the fields, accessible to all who yearn for connection with the Divine. It is a month when we are urged to look inward and face our shortcomings; to look back over the past year and take stock of where our actions did not measure up to the self we want to be; to look forward to these imminent Holy Days of celebration, prayer, repentence, forgiveness and hope.
As we hope to be forgiven, we also struggle to forgive others. Do they not deserve what we so dearly pray for? Our tormentors are human, too. They suffer the same shortcomings as we do. Why is forgiving such a challenge? Why do we hold on to our wounds so tightly? As I meditated this morning an image came to me of a tightly buttoned coat. We all wear such a coat, woven on a loom of sorrow and anger, disappointment and resentment. Fastened with buttons that symbolize blows to our heart, this coat often becomes justification for who we have become, for how our life has turned out.
Take a few minutes of quiet and settle into your coat. Feel its contours, the seams of righteous hurt that hold it together. Mentally finger its many buttons. Perhaps the top one was formed of a primal trauma; the two below it the consequences that followed. The next one, big and square, has sharp pointed corners. Perhaps they remind you of thoughtless words and deeds sent your way once, twice and thrice upon a time. There are buttons below this one: small, medium and large. You know who gave them to you; you keep them tightly sewn to your coat like a merit badge earned in Scouts.
What would it take to undo the buttons? To shuck the coat once and for all and be free? Not entirely free from the pain perhaps, but free from the constriction that keeps you from living fully and imbued with the joyful life you deserve. Could you undo a button and forgive the one who gave it to you? Maybe just a small one. And then what about another? Forgiveness doesn’t mean what was done to you was OK. Forgiveness means you will no longer allow another’s ineptitude to comandeer your life. Try another button. Can you feel the coat loosening? Inhale deeply. Feel the freedom that forgiving another brings you.
This is hard work. It is not completed in a single month or even in a lifetime. Yet year after year, this month of Elul gives us the opportunity to practice forgiveness, to strive toward becoming the person we want to be, to be forgiven and enter each New Year cleansed, hopeful, and inspired. And the coat? You may well reach for it again out of habit. It is familiar and quite comfortable after all. Without thinking, you might even put it on. But in this new year, perhaps you’ll simply place it lightly around your shoulders. Or carry it over an arm for a day or two. The buttons you can leave alone.