September 7, 2006
Polish the Soul for Elul
I spent the first three days of Elul polishing a lamp that has hung in the upstairs stairwell of my home for 80 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 teshuvah, 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 "teshuvah," heard so often during the month of Elul and the first 10 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.
Teshuvah, however, is more about cultivating compassion than about being held in judgment. Legend tells us that teshuvah 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. Judaism provides a 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 "teshuvah") 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'e,et, 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 sing this chant 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.
The chant was especially helpful to me last year, when as a Red Cross mental health worker, 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 Katrina.
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. Now, the chant helps me channel raw anger into productive action, as I rage at the ineptitude of public officials who fail to provide adequate resources for relief and recovery in the Gulf Coast region.
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 upbringing, "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 my daughter and 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.