The Jewish month of Elul is a time for deep teshuvah and tikkun. Reb Chaim Halberstam of Zanz once helped his Hasidim prepare for this journey by sharing this story:
“Once a woman became lost in a dense forest. She wandered this way and that in the hope of stumbling on a way out, but she only got more lost as the hours went by. Then she chanced upon another person walking in the woods. Hoping that he might know the way out, she said, ‘Can you tell which path leads out of this forest?’
“‘I am sorry, but I cannot,’ the man said. ‘I am quite lost myself.’
‘You have wandered in one part of the woods,’ the woman said, ‘while I have been lost in another. Together we may not know the way out, but we know quite a few paths that lead nowhere. Let us share what we know of the paths that fail, and then together we may find the one that succeeds.’
“What is true for these lost wanderers,” Reb Chaim said, “is true of us as well. We may not know the way out, but let us share with each other the ways that have only led us back in.”
Reb Chaim told this story during the month of Elul. His timing is significant. Elul is the month of forgiveness. It is during Elul that you speak with people, saying, “If I have hurt you in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, advertently or inadvertently, I ask for your forgiveness.”
Asking for forgiveness reminds us that we are all lost in the forest of thoughtlessness and suffering. Reb Chaim is teaching us that we cannot escape from this forest alone. Only when we realize that we are all trapped in the selfishness of ego can we forgive one another and begin the trek home.
Elul: The month preceding Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Normally coinciding with August—September, Elul is called the month of repentance, mercy, and forgiveness. The shofar is blown each morning of Elul with the exception of Shabbat morning, and Psalm 27 is read each day of the month. Elul is devoted to seeking forgiveness from people we may have hurt during the previous twelve months.
Teshuvah (Hebrew, “return”): The act of repentance. There are three steps to teshuvah. First, you must do what you can to make amends to the injured party. Second, you must feel contrition in your heart. Third, you must never repeat the hurtful action.
Tikkun (Hebrew, “repair”): There are two kinds of tikkun: tikkun hanefesh, repairing your soul, and tikkun haolam, repairing the world. The first consists of acts of teshuvah, getting yourself right with other people and with God. The second consists of social action, helping to set the world on a path toward justice and compassion.