First Shabbat in Elul: An Accounting of the Soul
(delivered by Rabbi J.B. Sacks on September 2, 2022)
Author Linda Weltner wrote an interesting essay about her brother Kenneth, who visited her on the East Coast from California. Since Kenneth was spending a month with her, she asked him if he would spend some time going through the 22 boxes that he had left in her attic. Many of his belongings had been stored in those boxes when he left home at age seventeen, and some boxes had been added in the years since. He was now thirty-years old.
Kenneth spent two weeks going through the boxes, discarding old clothes, books, school papers, and other sundries that many of us accumulate and find so difficult to throw away or donate. After he had thrown out eight full cartons of possessions, he chose to keep the rest, and he reflected to his sister that he had learned a number of lessons from this experience.
In his words: “What I’ve gained from sorting out all this stuff is, first of all, a sense of perspective. I can see that nothing is as important as it seems at the moment.”
That’s an important lesson for all of us anytime, particularly as we are preparing for the High Holy Days doing our cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our lives. So much of our anguish and suffering comes from a lack of perspective; from a feeling that the problem we are currently experiencing is a catastrophe. For example, when we are students and worrying about a test or paper deadline, or worried about not being as popular, talented or witty as our peers, or about not having a good skill set, social comfort, or loyal friends.
Perspective, as Fran as shown in her Middot class, is a character strength that we all do possess. But some of us have not used it enough. Character strengths, like muscles, atrophy if we don’t flex them.
To acquire a sense of perspective means, on one level, to look back and see that what we thought was a crisis turned out to be a much smaller problem. I imagine we have all had that experience, and it is probably true for virtually all unexamined problems of our past.
Yet, on a deeper level, perspective involves being able to look at a problem that confronts us today, that confronts us now, and realize that gam zo ya’avor, “this, too, shall pass,” and that we shall be able to manage today just as we did yesterday’s concern and yesteryear’s problem.
Kenneth, albeit unknowingly, performed a cheshbon ha-nefesh from the process of sorting through his belongings, for he drew and took in deeply and seriously important lessons for himself. To begin with, he stated, “…looking over the letters and photographs, I could see how many of the people around me fifteen years ago are still in my life. That gave me a good feeling of rootedness and continuation in spite of all the changes.”
How wonderful for Kenneth that at thirty years old, he had a stable group of sincere friends that he could count on and who counted on him. The larger truth Kenneth gleaned as he examined his past, was that many of the material possessions he had accumulated were of little consequence; those were the cartons he was able to discard with little compunction. What he did save were the pictures and letters of his family and friends, because they are the people who make a real difference in our lives, who give our lives context and meaning.
This is true for all of us. It’s our parents who, for most of us, gave us guidance and love; our grandparents who gave us unconditional acceptance and always spoiled us; our brothers and sisters who fought with us and yet, oddly enough, cared for us at the same time; our friends who shared so many experiences with us, who were our confidantes and listened to us express our hopes and disappointments. These are the people who gave Kenneth a feeling of rootedness and belonging. These are the people who are infinitely precious to each one of us and who give our lives meaning and continuity.
Kenneth continued with his cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of his soul: “On the other hand, there have been a lot of negative parts to this experience. I feel remorse. The only love letters I can bear to save are the ones I didn’t read. The others are filled with frustration and ambivalence. I had to get rid of them. Something went wrong with all those relationships, and now I think it was me. At the time I didn’t think so, but when you pile up the letters, you can see a pattern.”
So often, when a relationship is severed, we blame the other person, and we do so entirely and definitively. We assert, “He has no sensitivity.” “She has no compassion.” “He never understood me.” “She was always so self-centered.”
Kenneth, looking back at his broken relationships, emerges with an important insight, that perhaps he himself was the problem, or at least a major part of it. It’s the kind of insight each of us needs to be able to recognize. “He was insensitive at times,” but how often did I hurt him? “She lacked compassion at times,” but weren’t my words often unfeeling, even cruel? “He didn’t understand me at times,” but how often was I impatient with him? “I thought she was
self-centered, quite selfish,” but how often was I inconsiderate of her needs?
To be able to develop that kind of insight into our own foibles is to enable ourselves to form better relationships, or to improve those we already have.
Kenneth recognizes something else about himself. “The hardest thing is the realization of my own shortcomings. I found a box of resolutions, notes to myself about my strengths and weaknesses. At the time, it seemed like it would be simple to change, but now, all these years later, I haven’t cured what seemed so curable.”
Don’t we all have the same problem with our shortcomings? Some of us have short tempers. We say things which we regret immediately, but the words have already hit their target. We are fearful, afraid of people who intimidate us, afraid of new challenges that come our way. We are competitive, prepared to knock over anyone who stands in our way. We gossip and damage people’s reputations. Like Kenneth, we each have our weaknesses. We each make our own resolutions. And we often feel that “we haven’t cured what seemed so curable.”
Kenneth’s self-evaluation ends on a note of profound sadness. He concludes: “It appears I have certain permanent limitations in my character.” He ends without hope, without optimism, on a note of resignation, perhaps even despair.
As I read his reflections, I was impressed by his insights. But I was saddened by his missing the most important insight of all, one that is given to every Jew by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and that is the possibility of teshuvah, of transformation, of improving, of becoming a better person.
It’s not that our tradition expects miracles to take place on the High Holy Days. Change is very difficult, and we are experts at resisting it. That’s why some of our teachers asserted that the best way to effectuate change is by taking one character limitation at a time and working on it, beginning especially during this month of Elul, the month leading to Rosh HaShanah, which begins in three weeks.
We all have boxes of stuff in the attics of our souls. We all have things there in our soul, in our character, in our lives, in those boxes. It’s long overdue for us to take them out, look at them, discard what we must and fix or amend what we can. We can take out of the box even just one thing and work on it during this time of preparation for the High Holy Days. For example, if we find we need to control our tempers, we can start by controlling it even once, then once again, and then again. To deal with our fear of another person we might say to ourselves that this person is a mortal like myself and why should I fear? If we find in that box our competitiveness is out of whack, we can remind ourselves that there is enough room for both of us, and for all of us. If we have gossiped or forwarded a rumor, when tempted to do so the next time, we can try to bite our tongue once, and then once again, and then again. We can rid ourselves of old habits, by beginning new, contrarian ones.
We can do that because Judaism insists that there are no permanent limitations on our character. There are only limitations on our ability to imagine how much better we can actually become. And those limitations are self-imposed and can be overcome.
And, finally, what does G!d do if we are willing to change? As the U-n’taneh Tokef prayer reminds us, V’ad yom moto t’chake lo–G!d waits for us every day of our lives. Im yashuv mi-yad t’kab’lo, whenever we do teshuvah, whenever we act on our own self-accounting to better ourselves, whenever we return to the best and sweetest within us, G!d will welcome us in what can become the greatest moment yet of our lives.
Kein y’hi ratzon. So may it be for us this year.