In my work with Jews by Choice, there are several subjects of Jewish study I look forward to teaching because of their personal resonance. One is the custom associated with the month of Elul when we have the opportunity of reconciling with those with whom we have an outstanding, unresolved conflict. This is a form of Teshuvah that we make with each other, bein adam l’chavero (between a person and his/her friend) where we try to make ‘course corrections’ with those who have hurt us or those whom we have hurt. In traditional circles this is known as hatarat nedarim and is more closely associated with vows we have made to each other and broken. There are a few manifestations of this custom. One is where a person asks others to serve as a beit din (a court of three) before whom he/she asks for forgiveness for breaking a vow or commitment. There are always two sides to a story and often these sides contradict each other. Hurt feelings are just that, and it is often difficult to ascertain who is in the right and who is in the wrong. Our tradition very wisely teaches us that conflicts, in the long run, do greater damage to us when left to fester. In my studies I have learned that whether or not a vow is involved, we are obligated to ask for forgiveness from another person regardless of who is in the wrong. In other words, the action of humbling oneself by asking for forgiveness provides the possibility of reconciliation. Holding on to blame and anger only generates more of the same.
During the Selichot service that represents the formal beginning of Yamim Noraim, we ask for forgiveness from G-d – bein adam laMakom (between a person and G-d). It is a deeply moving service with inspiring text and beautiful music. Asking for forgiveness from each other during the month of Elul provides an opportunity to turn away from adversity and move towards normalizing a relationship – a human-based form of Teshuvah. In a world ripe with regional conflicts and ever-mounting violence, we often feel powerless to effect any change. We do, however, have the power to bring change into our personal lives. Though it may be extremely difficult to be the one who offers the olive branch of peace, I can tell you from personal experience, that the result can be very healing.