What Does it Mean to Search One’s Heart and Come Close to God This Elul?

Dear Jew in the City-

Elul is supposed to be a time of introspection, but so many of us have already been introspective during this giant time out. What does that mean practically to search one’s heart and come close to God right now?


Dear Chana,

I have to be honest that, when I first saw your question, I questioned the accuracy of your premise. Based on the past five months’ worth of social media, I would say that most people’s reactions to the pandemic ranged from clinical depression to generalized freaking out; I didn’t see a lot of people writing about being introspective. I reached out to a few friends who were able to confirm that at least some people were being introspective, so it may be more people than I originally thought, though it might not be as many as you think. In any event, we can address the question for the benefit of whoever may have been introspective while sheltering in place.

Let’s say that you were introspective during quarantine. Why would that be problematic come Elul? I assume you cleaned your house sometime in the month of March but you still cleaned it for Pesach. That’s because Pesach requires a special kind of cleaning, much more in-depth and targeted than the usual spring cleaning. Accordingly, having done one doesn’t preclude doing the other.

There was a story that I used in a d’var Torah… OMG, was it really 35 years ago? Ouch. Well, anyway, I remember the tale but not who it involves. I couldn’t find this story online and I don’t remember what book I saw it in, so hopefully some sharp-eyed reader will know and we can edit this paragraph accordingly. In short, a certain rav was sitting at home learning when a traveling tinker knocked on the door and asked if he had any utensils that needed repair. The rav said no and the tinker left, only to return soon after with the same question. The rav declined again and the tinker again departed but – surprise, surprise! – he came back yet again. The rav again turned down the craftsman’s services and the tinker left again, this time for good.

The rav explained that every time the tinker asked if he had utensils that needed repair, he took a personal inventory of himself, making a mental note of improvements that he needed to implement. Each time the tinker asked, the rav thought that he got them all but with each subsequent visit, the rav realized more areas that could use potential improvement. It was only with the tinker’s third visit that he truly covered every area of potential improvement.

I suspect this is true for all of us. Even if we were more introspective than usual while sequestered in our homes, there’s probably still more that we can do. Have we really perfected ourselves so much that there’s no more room for improvement? I imagine that such is not the case.

This kind of personal inventory is called “cheshbon hanefesh,” literally, “an accounting of the soul.” Many authorities recommend that we treat our spiritual accounting the same way that we would treat our financial accounting, i.e., by keeping a physical ledger and listing all of one’s personal “credits” and “debits.”

Among the things one might record in his spiritual ledger are:

Interpersonal relationships – family, friends, neighbors, colleagues: How have you treated the people in your life over the past year? Is there anyone you owe an apology? Have you held any grudges that have kept you from mending fences?

The world: How have you tried to make it better? Have you made necessary changes in your lifestyle? Have you made others’ lives easier? More difficult?

Yourself: What are your aspirations? Your regrets? Your accomplishments? Your fears? Do you have a goal for the coming year?

God: How have you been in the areas of observance that are strictly between you and Him? Have you improved or declined? To what do you attribute your successes and/or shortfalls?

This list, of course, is extremely rudimentary. An actual ledger would be much more detailed and highly personalized. Once you have analyzed your relationships over the past year – including those with God and yourself – you can think about how to effect change. Only when you have identified where the “losses” in your ledger are can you formulate plans to turn each of them into a “profit.”

For real, in-depth, roll-up-your-sleeves nitty gritty on making a cheshbon hanefesh, I refer you to two classic works. The first is Chovos HaLevavos by Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pakuda (1050–1120, Spain). One of the work’s ten major sections is Shaar Cheshbon HaNefesh (The Gate of Self-Examination), which is itself divided into six chapters. In these chapters, ibn Pakuda discusses what a personal accounting is, whether it is the same for all people (spoiler: it isn’t), the areas in which one should hold himself accountable (in what is by far the longest chapter in the section, ibn Pakuda names 30 such areas!), the benefits one receives from taking such a personal inventory, whether making cheshbon hanefesh is a constant obligation (another spoiler: it is) and, having taken a personal accounting, how one should proceed.

The other work I would recommend is the far less famous but perhaps even more apt Cheshbon HaNefesh by Rav Menachem Mendel Levin (AKA Lefin) of Satanov (1749-1826, Ukraine). First published in 1812, Cheshbon HaNefesh was brought back into print in 1845 at the urging of Rav Yisroel Salanter, father of the musar (self-improvement) movement. In thirteen subject areas, Rabbi Levin provides what might be even more practical instructions for making a cheshbon hanefesh. (Fun fact: Cheshbon HaNefesh was based in part on an ethical program described in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. This is true – Google it!)

It’s beyond our scope to summarize these works but Chovos HaLevavos and Cheshbon HaNefesh are both in print, and available in English. While one can always take a personal accounting even without reading these classic texts, they are an indispensable aid to taking one’s self-examination to the next level. So in the unlikely event that one has truly hit a wall in their attempts at introspection, reading these books will help to open a door.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

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