19 Elul 5783
Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue, Bentleigh, VIC
In response to growth of the chasidic movement in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the deterioration of the mitnagdim (the largely Lithuanian opponents to chasidism), and the birth of the Reform movement and the Haskalah (the Jewish enlightenment), Rabbi Isaac Salanter introduced the Mussar movement in the middle of the 19th century. The Musar movement was designed to teach and inspire ethical behaviour based on Jewish virtues. It was during this time that the concept of cheshbon ha’nefesh was born. Cheshbon ha’nefesh, literally meaning “an account of the soul”, is a Musar practice proposed for the month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. Salanter wrote: “…estimate the good traits of [a person] and [their] faults, how [one] should be castigated to turn away from the latter and strengthen the former. Do not decide matters at a single glance, divide the good work among you – not taking up much time, not putting on too heavy a burden. Little by little, much will be gathered … In the quiet of reflection, in reasonable deliberation, each will strengthen [another person] and cure the foolishness of [one’s] heart and eliminate [one’s] lazy habits” (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-mussar-movement).
Engaging in the practice of Cheshbon ha’nefesh during Elul requires us to reflect upon each day, and upon our actions during the past year, and ask ourselves if we measured up, if we embodied our virtues and made choices consistent with our Jewish values. Taking account of our good and bad choices, how can we balance our behaviours with the virtues in our hearts? The process of cheshbon ha’nefesh is designed to help realign our souls, our sense of self, with that which matters most to us and ethical living. Taken seriously, this is an incredibly challenging and, ultimately liberating experience. Brace yourselves and enjoy the process.See more Elul Reflections