Judaism Your Way


Soul Accounting. Cheshbon Ha-nefesh.

Soul Accounting. Cheshbon Ha-nefesh.
By Rabbi Caryn Aviv

We are so excited to see you soon at Judaism Your Way’s High Holiday services! I want to talk with you about one of the big concepts in Jewish spirituality during this time of year. It’s called soul accounting. In Hebrew, cheshbon ha-nefesh.

Heading into the new year on the secular calendar is where people typically reflect and make resolutions to change. Often this involves shame or blame about our eating and drinking patterns. So the resolutions tend to focus on going to the gym more and drinking less.

Judaism offers another approach. During ELUL, the whole month leading up to the High Holidays, we are invited to look at our behavior over the past year. We get the opportunity to wake up. To review and reflect on where we are in our spiritual process. We are invited to forgive ourselves with compassion practices where we’re holding onto blame and shame. We are encouraged to be accountable and seek forgiveness when we have harmed other people. We get the chance to have courageous conversations with others to air things out and repair broken relationships.

When Yom Kippur rolls around in a couple of weeks, we spend hours together, immersed in a collective compassion and forgiveness practice to begin the new year with a fresh start. This whole process, from the beginning of ELUL to the end of Yom Kippur, is called teshuvah in Hebrew. Teshuvah means ‘returning to integrity, returning to our best selves.’

Some people associate Yom Kippur with drudgery and self-flagellation or guilt. But the ancient rabbis of the Talmud were onto something when they discussed Yom Kippur as one of the happiest days of the Jewish year. I think the reason why is because Jewish spirituality asks us to focus on our behavior, rather than our worthiness.

When we focus on who we are as people, it’s easy to fall into blame and shame patterns that cut to the heart of our worthiness as human beings. Judaism deliberately focuses on behavior, because the Torah, Judaism’s sacred text, teaches that each of us is inherently worthy, inherently deserving of love and belonging, inherently deserving of respect and dignity.

The idea for this comes from the first chapter of Genesis, where the author narrates how human beings are created in the image of the Divine – b’tzelem elohim. Judaism recognizes that each human being is a blessing. Each human being, with all our gifts and flaws, is worthy of love. To paraphrase the Zen Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki, we are enough exactly as we are, and we always have room to grow.

With awareness, compassion, and forgiveness – the deep spiritual themes of the High Holidays, we have the capacity to change our behavior and turn towards the inherent goodness of who we are. We can take responsibility, notice where and how we want to grow, and then do the spiritual work of owning our stuff and changing our responses to life with our behavior.

In this season of cheshbon ha-nefesh, this time of soul accounting and reflection, may you look back on this difficult year with compassion for yourself and others. May you find the courage to forgive yourself and be open to forgiving others where and when someone has missed the mark. May you begin to remember that you are enough, exactly as you are, and may you also see where you have opportunities to grow.

See you soon at the Botanic Gardens or online.