Cheshbon Hanefesh – Introspection”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The High Holy Days are meant to be a time of profound introspection. Every person is to review their actions in their mind’s eye, from the past year, identify those that are good, and those that were not. Actions and thoughts that need improvement are to be the object of Teshuva, repentance and correction.

But even positive actions are subject to introspection as well. Could we have done better? Is there room for self-improvement?

One of the definitions of a Jew that I particularly favor is that a Jew is a person who’s always in tension with himself/herself and with his/her environment. A “good Jew” is one who is always striving to be better, endeavoring to climb higher on the ladder. A good Jew is someone who is in the “growth mode,” in a constant quest to improve the person that he/she is at this moment.

I recently came across a powerful quote from one Israel Knox, excerpted from his book entitled An Ethical/Humanist View of Rosh Hashanah. (How wonderful that even non-believers are moved by the High Holidays!) Knox writes:

There is a wonderful Hebrew term, that is often used in Yiddish as well, known as Cheshbon Hanefesh. It means taking an accounting of one’s soul, sitting in spiritual judgment of one’s self. When we make this self-accounting, we, in effect, acknowledge our failure to bridge the gap between our conscious and our conduct, between the standards we profess to believe in and the actions that we, in effect, performed or failed to perform. “Sin” is the gap between our promise and our conduct, between our standards and our actions.

Although Chesbon Hanefesh has long been part of Jewish tradition, introspection became a staple of contemporary Jewish life with the rise of the Mussar movement in the mid-1800s. Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883), the founder and primary mover of the Mussar movement, encouraged his followers to study three basic ethical texts: Chovot Halevavot (Duties of the Heart), Mesilat Yesharim (The Paths of the Righteous), and Cheshbon Hanefesh (Introspection).

While the major focus of the curriculum in the classic yeshivot was always on Talmud, as a result of Rabbi Salanter’s exhortations, many yeshivot adopted the idea of Mussar study as an ancillary part of the curriculum. It is widely acknowledged that Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar movement have had a major impact on Jewish life and Jewish study.

The average layperson, however, almost never really has the opportunity to study Mussar. Consequently, for most Jews, the most important time for introspection has always been the High Holidays.

Each person is required to ask him/herself, “What could I have done better last year, and what can I do better this year? How can I improve myself and my relationships? What impact have my actions had on others and on the world? Am I truly achieving my potential?”

These very powerful personal questions are, for the most part, intimidating, which is probably why they are most often eschewed throughout the year. Fortunately, the annual arrival of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur make it much harder to avoid these questions.

When I look back on my own life, I know that, somewhere along the way, it took a sharp turn. As a young boy and young man, I constantly dreamed of being either an electrical or chemical engineer. I even began as a chemistry major in college. But, somehow, I felt powerfully drawn to Jewish education.

Because of the Hebrew-speaking summer camp that I attended for many years, I had a strong Hebrew cultural background. The Hebrew camping experience served as a wonderful supplement to the intensive Hebrew day school education that I had gotten. I rose steadily in the ranks at camp, from counselor to division head to head counselor. Eventually, I became the director of a summer camp in Israel. Although sports and recreation were an important part of programming at both camps, Jewish culture and Jewish education were always a central element.

It was indeed fortuitous that I was asked to serve as a substitute teacher in Hebrew school one day. As a result, a consultant from the Board of Jewish Education who had walked into my classroom got on my case and insisted that I, at least, pursue a second degree in Jewish education. Little did I know then that this would change the course of my life.

To be sure, I am not the typical Jewish teacher. To a certain extent I often imagine that I deserve to be in the “Smithsonian Institution for Jewish Educators.” Being a Jewish educator is often a thankless, frustrating, and at times, demoralizing experience. Jewish teachers are grossly underpaid and often unappreciated (unfortunately, this is true of most teachers). Many young teachers who begin with enthusiasm end up rather discouraged and leave the profession for, hopefully, greener pastures.

I, on the other hand, have had nothing but extremely positive experiences, challenging, but, ultimately, positive experiences. I imagine that there are very few veteran Jewish educators who could rival the, almost exclusively, favorable experiences that I’ve had, and the incredible opportunities afforded me in my career-–one that now spans almost fifty years.

In my career as a Jewish educator, I have been exposed to great mentors, have had the support of wonderful individuals, leaders and educators, and happened to be at the right place at the right time to experience some of the most amazing breakthroughs in formal Jewish education, adult Jewish education, and informal Jewish education.

When I finally decided to leave the world of science (it wasn’t hard at all!) and convinced myself that I would try to impact on the Jewish world, I was determined to make certain to always be in a position to influence the largest number of people in the most positive way Jewishly. The losses to Jewish life were so immense that I felt I had to do something on a large scale. While impacting on two or three people in a profound manner is certainly a rewarding experience, the needs of the community were far beyond that.

My dear cousin, the late Edward S. Gordon, who was, at one time, among the most successful real estate leaders in America, often expressed pride in my achievements at the Lincoln Square Synagogue and NJOP. He suggested (although I have my reservations about his conclusion) that had I entered the field of real estate, I would have been a great success. Although, at times, I think about the twenty acre estate in the Hamptons that could have been mine, it is really a passing fantasy. Besides, with the critical needs of the Jewish community, who has time to fantasize about such things?

Could I have done more? I don’t think there is an honest person alive who would say that they couldn’t have done more. We all could do more. Could I be a better husband, father, and have been a better son to my parents? I don’t think there is a question that we all could do better.

Making a sincere Cheshbon Hanefesh is often a painful process. It requires supreme fortitude to confront ourselves in the mirror, look at where we went wrong, acknowledge the wrongs and mistakes, and devise ways for us to improve ourselves. It is, in reality, a veritable wrestling match with one’s soul.

That is what the High Holidays and the Ten Days of Penitence are all about–-intense introspection, leading, hopefully, to profound self-improvement. It can only be achieved if we are candid with ourselves, and prepared to take the courageous steps to acknowledge our faults and improve our deeds.

Clearly, the High Holy Days are a most propitious time for “Cheshbon Hanefesh” that must not be frittered away.

May you be blessed.

Wishing you a Shana Tovah and a Chatima Tovah, a very Happy and Healthy New Year.  May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, and may all our prayers be answered favorably

Yom Kippur will be observed this year on Friday evening, September 13th through nightfall on Shabbat, September 14th, 2013. Have a most meaningful fast.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, September 18th, 19th and 20th, 2013. The intermediary days [Chol HaMoed] are observed through Wednesday, September 25th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, September 26th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, September 26th and continues through Friday, September 27th.