One of the things I enjoy when I’m upset is baking. It’s distracting and fun, and the end product is a tasty edible thing. But baking is incredibly messy – when the muffins are in the oven you have goo all over the counters and floors, you’re covered in flour, ingredients are scattered about the kitchen and dishes piled to the sky. After being on my feet for an hour preparing the batter, cleaning up is not an exciting prospect. Over time I’ve learned that the trick is to clean as you go. That way, when you’re done baking, only the muffin pan is left to clean, and it’s not such a big deal.
It’s so much harder to leave the mess for the end. Who feels like washing a huge pile of dishes at 11:00pm after a long day and a baking project? Now imagine your siblings left their dinner dishes as well. Now you have to clean up your mess and all these extra things you weren’t counting on.
Human relationships are kind of like baking. It takes a lot of work, it can be rewarding but also messy. And just like baking, it’s hard to clean up huge relationship messes. I think it makes more sense to “clean as you go” – meaning, if you mess things up, fix them immediately instead of putting it off and waiting for the pile to grow. This is probably what most of us do with people we care about.
We have a beautiful tradition in Judaism: just before the high holidays, we have an entire month designated to forgiveness. The month of Elul, the one we are currently in, +we forgive those who have wronged us in the hope that God will do the same for us. However, along with this beautiful tradition is a very odd one. In the first grade we learn to ask forgiveness from everyone, and it comes down to sending notes saying, “I’m sorry if I hurt you! <3” to all of your classmates, or even posting a facebook status, “If I hurt anyone, please forgive me! Mwa.” It’s shallow and meaningless, and I think it’s comparable to cleaning up all the other people’s dishes. Why are we cleaning up messes we didn’t make? (Even though it may seem like a nice thing to do.) Some people say it’s because we are not always aware when we hurt someone’s feelings, but I think that’s ignorant. If you hurt someone, you should know it. And if there’s someone you might have hurt, you’ll know who that person is. But there’s no need to text your roommate’s best friend just because it’s Elul.
I believe in “Clean As You Go.” I think we should be apologizing to each other all year long – when we mess things up. If we leave it until the month of Elul, we lose sight of what’s important and get so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mess that we just throw apologies everywhere, hoping that the one or two people we really need to make amends with will be satisfied by that. Most likely, they won’t be.
Elul doesn’t mean apologize to everyone. Elul means if you’re holding a grudge, it’s time to let go.