As the month of Elul rolls around again, drawing Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah closer, rabbis once again begin urging each of us to do a "cheshbon ha-nefesh," a personal acounting. They call on us to engage in a process of "accounting of the soul" to prepare ourselves for the High Holydays, when we will stand to give a reckoning of our lives over the past year.
Our introspection at this season can have great spiritual impact, even transforming our lives, but for that to happen, we need an inner gaze that is deep and honest. That's where "cheshbon ha-nefesh" comes in. Although the term gets used to describe any kind of inner stock-taking, there is a way to do this personal accounting that is systematic, thorough and very effective. Done like that, it provides clear knowledge of the forces and contours of your own inner landscape. That interior world of personality, thought, wisdom and emotions, along with its eternal essence, is what we know as "soul," and a rigorous process of soul-accounting delivers up the penetrating insight and change that are the very purpose of these Days of Awe.
The method of cheshbon ha-nefesh was first laid out in a book called, naturally enough, Cheshbon ha-Nefesh, written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Leffin and published in Lvov, Ukraine in 1812. This book provides a refreshing experience for the modern reader because it offers a practical, step-by-step method of introspection and self-understanding that is much more like a self-help manual than a rabbinic treatise.
Doing an "accounting of the soul" is actually very simple. As a first step, you compose a list of thirteen qualities that you undertake to observe in yourself. The traits that belong on your list are those aspects of your inner life that tend to trip you up, in one way or another. Maybe you're already aware that you aren't too accurate in your speech, (which is something I've had trouble with in the past). Or maybe it's greed that sends you off in ways that don't yield up anything except a bad taste in your mouth. Is it arrogance that has you puffing up your ego like a peacock, or do you have the opposite tendency, allowing yourself too readily to be walked all over?
Can you identify your own strengths and weaknesses? "Weaknesses" might mean that you feel you've got too much of a trait, like anger for example, or it could be too little, like calmness. Too little anger (expressed as passion and vitality) is also a possibility. Any quality that could benefit from some measure of change belongs on your list. And if you already feel that you are adequately generous, for example, you've identified one trait you don't need on your list. Some traits will leap onto your list because they are all too well known to you, while others will need to be discovered.
Besides putting together this list, you have one more preparation to make. You have to provide yourself with a simple phrase that captures the ideal of each of the listed qualities. Look in a dictionary, in the Torah, or any other wisdom source, or just compose something yourself, so long as what you end up with accurately captures the essence of that particular quality. Here are some of the phrases that Rabbi Leffin gives us in Cheshbon ha-Nefesh:
For equanimity he writes: "Rise above events that are inconsequential - both bad and good - for they are not worth disturbing my peace of mind."
About decisiveness he says: "All of your acts should be preceded by deliberation; when you have reached a decision, act without delay."
And for righteousness he goes to the Talmud for "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor."
With your list of 13 qualities and a phrase to describe each one, now you're ready to begin the practice. You focus on one quality from your list for a full week, and really there are just two things you need to do
Every morning, soon after you have awakened, read over to yourself the reminder statement for the trait of that week. It might be helpful to set up your cards right beside your bed, or at another place where you are sure to see them and be reminded. I do yoga stretches and meditation every morning so I have my cards set up on the little table in my quiet room. The one for that week is at the front of the pile.
Read over the phrase of the week slowly and with full concentration. Read it aloud. Read it several times. Chant it. Go over this reminder in what ever way causes it to be so clearly illuminated in your mind that it seems to have been written in neon. Once you've really heard the phrase in so penetrating a way, go on with your day.
Of course, during the day you try to live up to the ideal stated on your reminder card, but not with strain or by repressing tendencies. Just do your best.
Then at bedtime, you'll do the second part of the practice. Keep a small notebook beside your bed, along with a pen, and just before you go to bed, reflect back over your day to see what you can identify that in any way reveals the presence of the single quality you are working on that week. Record all thoughts and experiences that relate to that particular quality.
Your notes should be brief, just an outline of the facts that reveal something of your characteristics. Focus especially on the role you played in events. Don't worry if what you write wouldn't pass as literature. No one but you ever need see this notebook. More important than the amount you write or the floweriness of the prose is the honesty you bring to your introspection. Shine a bright light on your day, and see what there is to see about that quality that is your focus for that week, and write down just what you need to record to clarify the facts of your motives, actions and reactions.
A quality may leap right out at you - you lost your temper with your kids, or you got coerced into saying yes to something that you know you shouldn't have taken on. Or you may have to think and probe a bit to uncover the imprint of your soul as it shaped your day. But if you were alive, it has to be there.
It is crucially important that you not beat up on yourself for your slip-ups, nor to heap praises on yourself for your victories. What you're after is just a factual and accurate picture of the play of your inner life as it shapes your thoughts, words and deeds in action. The details contain the underlying patterns that recur in your life, and by examining them, you get nothing less than a read-out on the contents of your unconscious, as these express themselves in the particulars of your life.
Say that the first quality on your list is "equanimity," just as it is in Rabbi Leffin's book. On the day that you begin the practice plus for the next six days, every morning when you arise you recite to yourself the phrase for equanimity: "Rise above events that are inconsequential - both bad and good - for they are not worth disturbing my peace of mind." Go over it several times or in different ways, until its message is really imprinted on your mind. You want to absorb the message in a deep and acute way.
Then, every evening that same week, record in your diary at bedtime those things that happened to you that day that reveal something about the presence or absence of equanimity in your experience. It may be big - "I got really upset when..." - or small - "I can recall the tiny twinge of disturbance that came up at..." Whatever it is, down it goes in writing.
Once you have completed seven days focused just on equanimity, now you leave equanimity behind and check your list to see what the next quality is. You put the reminder card for that quality at the front of the pile, ready to recite every morning of that week, while in the evenings you'll record only those matters related to that next quality on your list.
So it goes, through the thirteen weeks, at which point you will return right back to the first of the qualities on your list, back to "equanimity."
In the course of a year, you will go through that full set of thirteen qualities exactly four times, since four times thirteen equals fifty-two, the number of weeks in ayear. You will have spent a total of four weeks in the year reflecting on and learning about how each of your thirteen selected qualities plays its role in shaping your life.
Cheshbon ha-Nefesh done like this is simple but amazingly effective. I wrote about it in my recent book, "Climbing Jacob's Ladder," where I said, "The central point [of cheshbon ha-nefesh] is really to reveal to consciousness the contents of the unconscious mind. These are, by definition, hidden from us, and so no matter how hard we peer directly into our inner selves, we won't uncover anything of what lurks below the surface. But because the contents of our unconscious are perfectly reflected in the patterns of our deeds, certain images return night after night, and the patterns become unmistakable. We need this truth about ourselves to guide our steps on the path to deep, lasting, fulfilling transformation. And, in fact, as soon as we have brought to light those soul traits that might otherwise have continued to live in darkness, we have already begun to change."
Like an accountant reviewing a company's books, the "accounting of the soul" practice gives you all the tools you need to "audit" your inner life. You are guided to peek into the old shoeboxes and sort out the musty files of what lives in your deep interior in order to generate an accurate and transparent balance sheet of your life. The conscious mind now gains access to features of the unconscious, and becomes aware of the soul-traits that mold our everyday existence, including thoughts, feelings and actions. That's how cheshbon ha-nefesh works. It brings to light deep patterns that might otherwise remain hidden from us. This new awareness is crucial for the inner journey of the Days of Awe and sets us on course for the transformation and ascent we are called to make in this season.
Alan Morinis is the author of Climbing Jacob's Ladder: one man's journey to rediscover a Jewish spiritual tradition (Broadway Books, 2002). He can be visited at