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Cache of the Day: Elul

Sima Freidel Steinbaum

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Elul. The month to gear up for Rosh HaShanah, the month to prepare our defense for Judgment Day — judgment for everything we’ve done over the past year — is upon us. Although the mitzvah of teshuvah, repentance, exists yearlong, there’s an extra special quality to the teshuvah we do prior to walking into the Heavenly courtroom on Rosh HaShanah. Giving up past sins is crucial. Turning over a new leaf is critical. And time is of the essence. Why would we put it off till the eleventh hour?

Because so many of us choose — yes, choose! — to procrastinate. The word “procrastination” is from the 1540s, from the Latin procrastinationem “a putting off,” from procrastinare “put off till tomorrow,” from pro- “forward” + crastinus “belonging to tomorrow,” from cras “tomorrow.” And putting off till tomorrow what we can do today has many fans.

“Procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday”— Don Marquis

“The sooner I fall behind, the more time I have to catch up” — anon

“If it weren’t for the last minute, I wouldn’t get anything done” — anon

“Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment” — Robert Benchley

“It is an undoubted truth that the less one has to do, the less time one finds to do it in” — Earl of Chesterfield

“Putting off an easy thing makes it hard. Putting off a hard thing makes it impossible” — George Claude Lorimer

“A year from now you may wish you had started today” — Karen Lamb

Lidchot is the Hebrew verb to postpone. The root, dachah, dalet-ches-hey, is defined by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch as: 1) pushing, driving away (Tehillim 118:13); 2) stumbling (Tehillim 116:8); 3) inducing deviation (Tehillim 62:5); 4) toppling (Tehillim 62:4). These are not positive concepts. When we procrastinate we’re pushing ourselves away from what we need to be doing, stumbling, toppling, and causing ourselves to deviate from the right direction.

Modern definitions of dachah include: to postpone, to defer ; to reject, to rebuff ; to veto, to turn down; to oust, to push aside, to cast aside; to override; to repel; (physics) to displace; (medicine) to reject. This is not what we want to be doing come Elul.  

When we’re finished postponing, pushing off, etc., when we finally decide to start working on ourselves, there’s a prescribed order. Step 1: azivas ha’chet, leaving the sin. But leaving the sin is never enough. Because if we don’t really, really regret having done the sin in the first place, we’re going to quickly find ourselves doing it again (and again). Which brings us to step 2: charatah, regret. “True repentance,” Rabbeinu Yona explains, “is to feel that sorrow in one’s soul for the sins which he transgressed.”

Charatah, from root charat, ches-reish-tes, means regret, remorse, contrition, as well as to smooth, to turn (on lathe), and to chisel.

Charitah engraving, turning (metal), chiseling.

What’s the connection? It’s that real regret is tangible, almost literally engraved and chiseled onto our hearts. We feel it both deeply and sharply.

Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:2) says about charatah: “v’chen “yisnachem” al ha’avar, and thus you will be “comforted” about the past.”

Rav Hirsch says nachem, root nun-ches-mem, means to “change attitudes,” as in “comforting” (Bereishis 5:29, 50:21, Tehillim 119:76); “reconsidering” (Bereishis 6:6, 37:35); and “regretting” (Yirmiyahu 8:6).

Rambam’s comment on charatah along with Rav Hirsch’s definition of nachem is clear. Charatah doesn’t only bring us to reconsider and regret past indiscretions. It also comforts us over past indiscretions. When we do the charatah stage of teshuvah properly, if we cut deeply enough, it effects change. When we allow ourselves to be comforted, when we reconsider, when we regret — then we allow ourselves to change our attitudes. To be different.

But to really feel charatah, we need to make that first cut.

Will it be with a chisel or engraver? The chisel is forced, manually or with a mallet, into hard materials such as wood or stone, to cut it. Engraving is a combination of pressure and manipulating the material.

Some sins demand the chisel charatah. Some need the gentler engraving charatah. It depends on who’s doing the cutting, with what, how, why, and where it leads. And charatah isn’t done with a sledgehammer; a chisel and engraver are artisans’ tools, removing the bad and leaving the good. Charatah isn’t meant to destroy us. It’s meant to help us change direction. If charatah leaves us a quivering, paralyzed pile of rubble, broken from guilt too heavy to bear, the tools have been incorrectly handled. If the result is a work of art, what’s been removed revealing the majesty inside the wood or stone, and leading to real reconsidering, regretting, and comfort, we’ve wielded our tools correctly.

May we all merit chiseling away anything obscuring our full potential.

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