Conducting a Chesbon Ha-Nefesh
Everyone preps for the hagim in different ways: taking the first steps of teshuvah, cooking massive family meals, preparing dynamic divrei torah or even writing blog posts. The time preceding the High Holidays is one of the most chaotic times of year, and it’s compounded by some pretty heavy practices that tradition encourages us to undertake. A wealth of information exists online about rituals of this season, including selikhot and tashlikh. I find, however, that many of these rituals tend to frame things in a negative light and dwell inordinately on sin and transgression. I prefer to focus more on the process known as Chesbon HaNefesh (the accounting of the soul) and to adopt a more nondualistic approach to self-reflection and atonement. Instead of judging myself and parsing my actions according to mistakes, bad habits or misdeeds, I try to keep things a little lighter and more constructive.
Every year during the High Holidays I read Rav Kook. His approach to penitence and universal connections has resonated with me since the late 1990s. If you like Musar or the writings of Adin Steinsaltz, then Rav Kook’s words will appeal to your special brand of practical optimism. And his poetry is quite nice too.
Penitence comes as an aspect of discernment, and in its highest expression it transforms willful wrongs into merits, and they thus become a force for life. However, penitence, in all its forms, suffers initially from a weakening of the will related to the remorse felt for past misdeeds.
- Rav Kook, The Lights of Penitence
Rav Kook says that assessing our actions as positive or negative make us feel pretty crummy, but that’s okay; once we admit our culpability and “look at the sin,” our wrongs transform into merits, like some magical Schrödinger’s Cat.
Rav Kook’s path of discernment is quite similar to what is now known as Chesbon HaNefesh. This sort of moral accounting was first laid out in Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh, a Musar text written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin in 1812 . A 19th century self-help book, it presented practical steps for instilling moral fiber and ethical stamina. Oddly, it was inspired by The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Though it’s still an obscure practice for most people, I find that conducting a Chesbon HaNefesh around the High Holidays is a great way to check in with myself and get in tune with the seasonal changes.
It might sound hokey, or like something out of the Artists Way, but you could reread this past year’s emails, Facebook posts, tweets or purchase orders from Amazon and look for patterns. All the stuff we do online makes for great archival self-reflection. The trick is to leave judgment out of the picture, not to couch everything in terms of good or bad. There are enough external factors weighing in on most of us these days. Let’s leave the harsh criticisms to the judging panels on reality TV shows.
JT Waldman is a comic book illustrator and interaction designer based in Philadelphia. He is the author of the graphic novel Megillat Esther, and the architect of the Tagged Tanakh. JT is currently working on his next graphic novel with the late Harvey Pekar.