Our prayer books colour code each yearly cycle. Before Covid (the new time designation for BC), I rebound my cardboard volumes of Alcalay’s English / Hebrew / English dictionary. I know I can look everything up online, but there is something satisfying in reaching for those volumes which sit on the same shelf as Mishkan T'filah, Plaut and Mishkan T'shuvah. The new vermillion and gold lettered spines distinguish themselves not just by the feel of the fabric binding, but by their mint condition by comparison with other, more venerable staples on my reference shelf.
We often use the word “discerning” for fine gradations of good taste, a cultivated palate for food or wine, a deep knowledge of music, art or other disciplines that entitles authoritative comment. Writing to a clergy friend in America recently I observed, “discernment is remarkable. It makes space for the words of what we know and what is emerging into knowing.” I turned to Alcalay when wondering how best to render that aphorism in Hebrew. Perhaps blurring the line between discernment and distinctiveness, one of my dictionary’s options uses lehavkhin, familiar from our morning blessing “lehavkhin bein yom u’veyn laylah” (Mishkan T'shuvah for Rosh ha’Shanah - the red one similar to my Alcalay - p88). We routinely thank God for “the ability to distinguish between day and night”. But in the early hours, it is harder to distinguish between blue and green in the emerging light of dawn (Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion in Mishnah Berachot 1:2), than to quantify the majority opinion which says the time has come when blue and white can be distinguished (perhaps the stripes of a tallit) in order to know when to say the morning Shema.
In our period of Elul reflection, we are called on to discern many fine distinctions and act on them. It is not enough to apologise in a formulaic way. We must approach someone we have wronged with an apology. That first step indicates we know we have an issue to attend to. We may begin, “I am sorry that …” But the job doesn’t end there. The rabbis teach that only when we have made the request for forgiveness three times, have we discharged our duty to seek forgiveness, even if forgiveness is withheld. There are some things that defy the first step. I carry the awareness of some apologies I could not make and retain the burden many years later.
My trusty dictionary captures this element of asking for forgiveness in the Hebrew, but modern English usage eliminates it. An apology is something to give. Forgiveness is something to seek and is given by the person we have approached for resolution. Long gone is the proper formulation of “I do beg your pardon,” which is still familiar to those of us who remember it. Alcalay translates “apology” as “bakashat selichah”, the request for pardon. Repeatedly, our services orchestrate our formal apologies to God: “slach lanu, mechal lanu, kaper lanu forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement”. Turning with hope towards an unknowable God whose actual voice we rarely (if ever) hear, we do more than cry Jonah’s crocodile tears. We ask for forgiveness. Perhaps it is easier to ask for forgiveness from God, whose face we cannot see, than in person from people we have wronged. But discerning how and when to ask, and even whether to ask for forgiveness from those we serve, and those we love, is much harder to do. That is the hevdeil, the havdalah, the discernible boundary that shows the line, sometimes difficult to distinguish, between this and that, sacred and mundane, blue and green, apology and the active pursuit of forgiveness.
-- Rabbi Aviva Kipen