Image: An accounting ledger filled out in blue ink. (cpastrick/pixabay)
Cheshbon hanefesh is usually translated, “the accounting of the soul.” We do cheshbon nefesh every year during the month of Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days, because without taking inventory, how can we know what we need to change?
Hebrew is an interesting language in that it has both a “holy” life and a “secular” life. I put thise words in scare quotes because I think those are often artificial categories – in fact, for a Jew, the interaction of the holy and the ordinary is often the place where Torah comes to life.
Cheshbon has many meanings, but the one you will most often hear on the street in Israel today is “the bill.” I ask for a cheshbon when I am done with my meal. It lists what my party has ordered, the cost of each item, and a total.
Nefesh is another word with sacred and secular meanings. (The ha in front of nefesh means “the.”) In the prayer book, nefesh is usually translated as “soul,” although in the Bible it is often more correctly translated “life” as in:
וַיִּבְרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֶת־הַתַּנִּינִ֖ם הַגְּדֹלִ֑ים וְאֵ֣ת כָּל־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַֽחַיָּ֣ה ׀ הָֽרֹמֶ֡שֶׂת אֲשֶׁר֩ שָׁרְצ֨וּ הַמַּ֜יִם לְמִֽינֵהֶ֗ם וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־ע֤וֹף כָּנָף֙ לְמִינֵ֔הוּ וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֽוֹב׃
God created the great sea monsters, and all the living creatures of every kind that creep, which the waters brought forth in swarms, and all the winged birds of every kind. And God saw that this was good. – Genesis 1:21
This version translates v’et kol-nefesh hakhayah as “all the living creatures.” It is not usually understood to imply that the swarming things of the deep have souls like human souls, rather, it indicates that they are alive – many of them, for just a brief time.
So perhaps when we talk about the month of Elul as a time for heshbon nefesh, we can expand a bit from the perhaps precious notion of “an accounting of soul” – and ask, “What does my life add up to right now?”
- In what ways have I made the world better? In what ways have I made it worse?
- How do I affect the lives of others? Are their lives easier or harder because of my behavior?
The questions themselves take us out of the realm of self. We ask not “who or what has been good for me?” but “for whom or what have I been good?”
Cheshbon hanefesh is not for beating ourselves up. Jewish tradition ascribes to each human being an infinite, unmeasurable worth. There is no such thing as a “worthless” human being in Judaism. This is not about our worth as individuals; it is about the worth of our behavior as individuals. What are we doing with our lives?
Cheshbon hanefesh is the essential prelude to meaningful change. If we approach the process humbly and sincerely, it can provide us with a map for more worthy living.