Kheshbon Nefesh—An Accounting of Myself

August 9, 2013

By David Mattis

I am reminded that the Hebrew word “khet” – often translated as “sin” – should be rendered as “missing the mark.” As the month of Elul has just begun, it is an opportunity for me, and everybody in fact, to prepare for Rosh Hashanah by doing kheshbon nefesh – an accounting of myself. Where was I good last year? What did I mess up? Who have I helped, hurt, or ignored?

That is my responsibility before I come before God and “pass under his staff like a sheep, being counted by the shepherd.” That is the metaphor of the powerful high-holiday prayer Unetaneh Tokef.  Yet members of the ovine flock cannot do kheshbon nefesh; that is human work. It is the work of the month of Elul.

Talking to people here at Beit T'Shuvah, I noticed something this year. To reckon whether I've “missed the mark,” I have to know what the marks are!  Some marks are internally driven: I want to learn French, I want to be a good husband, etc. Some are societally driven: I want to avoid parking tickets, I want to look presentable, what have you.

The traditional Jewish framework of “marks” is the mitzvot. They are actions to perform or avoid in order to lead an integrated life with God and society. It can become a checklist: Prayer? Check. Kosher? Check. Visited a sick person? Check. But the checklist has its limits. Was it only one sick person I visited? Did I make a real connection with them? That's where kheshbon nefesh comes in. It's not just what I did or failed to do, but how. Was I whole-hearted, half-hearted, or downright fake?

My problem is I tend to be vague.  I plan to be responsible this year, I plan to be helpful, etc.  While it is fine for me to have overarching goals, the real work of kheshbon nefesh is in specificity.  What did I really do last year and what do I plan this year?

So here's Elul again. I've done a bunch of good in the year 5773, but I've missed plenty of marks. And I'm not alone. We've stolen, we've slandered, we've done nothing instead of acting, we've sent harassing texts under the name “Carlos Danger.”

Ve-al kulam – “regarding all of these things,” God has the way to forgive us. Let us find the way to avoid “khet” and be whole-hearted. Let me find marks that benefit myself and others and then hit those marks!

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