At a class the other night we talked about cheshbon hanefesh, "accounting of the soul," a discipline embraced by 18th century Hasids and often expressed today through Mussar, a contemplative practice focused on behavior and ethics. ("Cheshbon" is a practical concept. In modern Hebrew the word means "Check, please!" or "I need to go over my records with the tax attorney.") Throughout the year, but especially during the month of Elul, the Hassidic masters methodically and painstakingly analyzed their own shortcomings and then devised, with the help of friends if necessary, a plan for improvement. All this hundreds of years before Freud. "Elul is really just one big couch," said the rabbi. Like therapy, this kind of self-exploration requires the courage to speak from a place of pain and to admit, out loud, where we've fall off the path that is ours alone, the path closest to our essence. Those words can have the power to change us, once we find the strength to utter them. So "The Lord is One," from the Shema, can mean that you have to be unique to be closer to God. Be yourself.
And if you don't, he said--if you veer off that path--there's always hope, always opportunity for change and growth. But we have to start with ourselves before we can presume to change the rest of the world.
It's unfortunate, he added, that religion these days so often implies religious behaviorism. Following rules is paramount; the emotional development that was once the foundation of these rules is often forgotten. Rosh Hashonah is not just about the birthday of the world, but the birthday of us, individually--the rediscovery of the direction we were each meant to follow, and the tachlis, the nuts and bolts, of a spiritual partnership that will help us do so. He challenged us to be like the early Hasids and make a list of what we need work on in order to become the best of ourselves that we can be, and another of practical ways to attain these goals. A friend later suggested a third column: what we think has been stopping us, all along, from following a path we know we know to be the right one.
(To be continued.)