Did You Do a Cheshbon HaNefesh Today?

I’ve been learning Bilvavi recently, and Rav Shwartz has a slightly different understanding of the path proscribed by Mesillas Yesharim then the conventional Yeshiva understanding. We’ll G-d willing discuss the differences in a later post, but today let’s take a look at a practical problem we hit early in the Mesillas Yesharim.

In Chapter 3, Concerning the divisions on watchfulness, the Ramchal tells us 1) We have to know what the right thing to do from a Torah perspective and 2) we have to review our actions (saying brochas, davening, wasting time, dealing with others, etc..) on a regular basis to determine whether we are actually doing the right thing. This regular/daily review is called Cheshbon HaNefesh. The Ramchal makes a very strong case that Cheshbon HaNefesh is an absolutely necessary early step for growth.

The problem is that when you ask your average mussar-oriented-yeshishvish-guy whether he regularly does a Cheshbon HaNefesh, he’ll invariably say no. I’ve asked many people and most of them admit that although this is an important part of the Ramchal’s prescription, they don’t do it. Rebbeim I’ve talked to about this, point out that the reason Cheshbon HaNefesh is not widely practiced is that our generation really can’t stand the regular self-criticism.

In the business world, Cheshbon HaNefesh is very popular in the forms of performance scorecards and other multi-faceted measurement and review techniques. The basic idea is that you define certain criteria of success from a financial, customer satisfaction, business process and learning perspective and then you give feedback in charts and graphs measuring the success, often using the colors red, yellow and green. A friend tells me that if the measures are reflecting too much red, they are often redefined since most employees can’t take too much negative feedback. Another indication that self-criticism is difficult for us to take.

So we are left with a problem, Cheshbon HaNefesh is an essential ingredient for spiritual success, but it is difficult to do. Here are some questions:

Has anybody been successful implementing a Cheshbon HaNefesh program?
Is the pain of the process the main problem?
Can you think of any successful self-reward programs?
Do we need to redefine the process for our generation?
Would a group of people working on this together help?
Would Quicken-like computer software help?

Below is Chapter 3, from R’ Shraga Silverstein’s translation and posted here through the generosity of Feldheim Publishers. Our learning is in memory of Sarah Bas Reb Eliezer Kops.

ONE WHO WISHES to watch over himself must take two things into consideration. First he must consider what constitutes the true good that a person should choose and the true evil that he should flee from; and second, he must consider his actions, to discover whether they appertain to the category of good or to that of evil. This applies both to times when there is a question of performing a specific action and to times when there is no such question. When there is a question of performing a specific action, he should do nothing before he weighs the action in the scale of the aforementioned understanding. And when there is no such question, the idea should take the form of his bringing before himself the remembrance of his deeds in general and weighing them, likewise, in the scales of this criterion to determine what they contain of evil, so that he may cast it aside, and what of good, so that he may be constant in it and strengthen himself in it. If he finds in them aught that is evil, he should consider and attempt to reason out what device he might use to turn aside from that evil and to cleanse himself of it. Our Sages of blessed memory taught us this in their statement (Eruvin 136), “It would have been better for a man not to have been created… but now that he has been created, let him examine his deeds. Others say, `Let him “feel” his deeds.’ ” It is to be seen that these two versions constitute two sound beneficial exhortations. For “examination” of one’s deeds refers to an investigation of one’s deeds in general and a consideration of them to determine whether they might not include certain actions which should not be performed, which are not in accordance with God’s mitzvoth and His statutes, any such actions to be completely eradicated. “Feeling,” however, implies the investigation even of the good actions themselves to determine whether they involve any leaning which is not good or any bad aspect which it is necessary to remove and to eradicate. This is analogous to a person’s feeling a garment to determine whether its material is good and sturdy or weak and rotted. In the same respect he must “feel” his actions by subjecting them to a most exhaustive examination to determine their nature, so that he might remain free of any impurities.

To summarize, a man should observe all of his actions and watch over all of his ways so as not to leave himself with a bad habit or a bad trait, let alone a sin or a crime. I see a need for a person to carefully examine his ways and to weigh them daily in the manner of the great merchants who constantly evaluate all of their undertakings so that they do not miscarry. He should set aside definite times and hours for this weighing so that it is not a fortuitous matter, but one which is conducted with the greatest regularity; for it yields rich returns.

Our Sages of blessed memory have explicitly taught us the need for such an evaluation. As they said (Bava Bathra 78b), “Therefore the rulers say, `Let us enter into an accounting’ (Numbers 21:27). Therefore the rulers over their evil inclinations say, ‘Let us come and compute the world’s account, the loss entailed by the performance of a mitzvah, against the gain that one secures through it, and the gain that one acquires through a transgression against the loss that it entails… ‘ ”

This true counsel could not have been given, nor its truth recognized by any except those who had already departed from beneath the hand of their evil inclination and come to dominate it. For if one is still imprisoned by his evil inclination, his eyes cannot see this truth and he cannot recognize it. For the evil inclination literally blinds his eyes and he becomes as one who walks in the darkness, where there are stumbling blocks before him which his eyes do not see. As our Sages of blessed memory said (Bava Metzia 83b), ” ` You laid down darkness and it was night’ (Psalms 104:20). This refers to this world which is similar to night.” How wondrous is this truthful commentary to him who concentrates upon understanding it. For the darkness of night can cause two types of errors in relation to a man’s eye: it may either cover his eye so that he does not see what is before him at all, or it may deceive him so that a pillar appears to him as a man, or a man as a pillar. In like manner, the earthiness and materialism of this world is the darkness of night to the mind’s eye and causes a man to err in two ways. First it does not permit him to see the stumbling blocks in the ways of the world, so that the fools walk securely, fall, and are lost without having experienced any prior fear. As Scripture states (Proverbs 4:19), “The path of the wicked is like pitch darkness; they do not know upon what they stumble,” and (Proverbs 22:3), “The wise man sees the evil and hides, and the fools pass on and are punished,” and (Proverbs 14:16), “And the fool becomes infuriated and is secure.” For their hearts are steadfast and they fall before having any knowledge whatsoever of the existence of the stumbling block. The second error, which is even worse than the first, stems from the distortion of their sight, so that they see evil as though it were goodness itself, and good as if it were evil, and, because of this, strengthen themselves in clinging to their evil ways. For it is not enough that they lack the ability to see the truth, the evil staring them in the face, but they also see fit to find powerful substantiations and empirical evidence supporting their evil theories and false ideas. This is the great evil which embraces them and brings them to the pit of destruction. As Scripture states (Isaiah 6:10), “The heart of this nation has become fatted, and its ears have become heavy, and its eyes have turned aside, lest…” All this because of their being under the influence of the darkness and subject to the rule of their evil inclination. But those who have already freed themselves from this bondage see the truth clearly and can advise others in relation to it.

To what is this analogous? To a garden-maze, a type of garden common among the ruling class, which is planted for the sake of amusement. The plants there are arranged in walls between which are found many confusing and interlacing paths, all similar to one another, the purpose of the whole being to challenge one to reach a portico in their midst. Some of the paths are straight ones which lead directly to the portico, but some cause one to stray, and to wander from it. The walker between the paths has no way of seeing or knowing whether he is on the true or the false path; for they are all similar, presenting no difference whatsoever to the observing eye. He will not reach his goal unless he has perfect familiarity and visual acquaintance with the paths through his having traversed them and reached the portico. He who occupies a commanding position in the portico, however, sees all of the paths before him and can discriminate between the true and the false ones. He is in a position to warn those who walk upon them and to tell them, “This is the path; take it!” He who is willing to believe him will reach the designated spot; but he who is not willing to believe him, but would rather trust to his eyes, will certainly remain lost and fail to reach it.

So too in relation to the idea under discussion. He who has not yet achieved dominion over his evil inclination is in the midst of the paths and cannot distinguish between them. But those who rule their evil inclination, those who have reached the portico, who have already left the paths and who clearly see all of the ways before their eyes – they can advise him who is willing to listen, and it is to them that we must trust.

And what is the advice that they give us’? – ‘Let us enter into an accounting.’ Let us come and compute the world’s account.” For they have already experienced, and seen, and learned that this alone is the true path by which a man may reach the good that he seeks, and that there is none beside this.

What emerges from all this is that a man must constantly – at all times, and particularly during a regularly appointed time of solitude – reflect upon the true path (according to the ordinance of the Torah) that a man must walk upon. After engaging in such reflection he will come to consider whether or not his deeds travel along this path. For in doing so it will certainly be easy for him to cleanse himself of all evil and to correct all of his ways. As Scripture states (Proverbs 4:26), “Consider the path of your feet and all of your paths will be established,” and (Lamentations 3:40), ll return to God.”

6 comments on “Did You Do a Cheshbon HaNefesh Today?

  1. Try “Gateway to Self-Knowledge” by Rav Zelig Pliskin. This may be out of print, but I saw copies available used thru Amazon, for example.

  2. Using any simple database program,one can treat every day of the week like a contact.
    And like do separate entries for weekly recaps and monthly recaps.
    Each day of the week could be assigned a do away with shortcoming task or two for starters.
    Like start a homeless shelter Sundays/ humility mending Mondays/totally modest and cheerfully charitable Tuesdays/no evil slander and really wonder about g-ds will Wednesdays/totally ego free altruism Thursdays/dont judge your friend or foe and love everyone Fridays…….. Saturdays are for resting.
    And the weekly and monthly recap contacts could have like general objectives and a set day for rigid spiritual analysis and self overview.
    At the end of each day, in the comments field one can type up a quick recap of the day.First focusing on the shortcomings assigned to that day. And then jotting down any other behaviour one think needs modification.
    At the end of the first week, there should be some sort of cumalitive shortcoming overcoming , and some kind of pattern emerging on what kind of errant behaviours are showing up too often.
    One can then assign those shortcomings, their own days.
    And then modify the weekly contact and monthly contact accordingly.
    The how flawed is the self picture should get clearer as time ticks by….
    If the program has tagging capability,one can tag comments and points any which way for quick search and or progress tracking or whatever……….

    The question is though, what english mussar translation and or book should one use to create the raw data they will use to create the check system for the hardcore daily weekly and monthly spiritual self analysis.

    Most mussar books have translations that are either acutely esoteric in nature/vividly vague/ ambiguous and or about as crystal clear as those amber bottles you should be getting your vitamins from.

    Or passages that are entirely open to fifty four distinctly different interpretations complete with their very own corresponding random quotes from different sages existing and experiencing life in different eras,(similar to the scientific studies on vitamins that change like the weather, consider recent vitamin c updates) which could be annoying at all times.

  3. 12 step recovery programs have successfully used cheshbon hanefesh for over 60 years and consider it a critical part of their spiritual program. Here are the 12 suggested steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:

    The 12 Suggested Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

    1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.

    2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

    3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

    5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

    6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

    7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

    8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

    10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

    11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

    12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

    As you can see, Steps 4 and 10 are cheshbon hanefesh. Other 12 step recovery programs use almost identical language. Many have written on the 12 steps from a Jewish perspective, especially Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski.

  4. I see. One of the things I personally find difficult is that I equate a cheshbon hanefesh with the book and I think the approach in the book is quite overwhelming.

    Maybe it makes more sense to limit it to a single middah or two.

  5. I certainly think that nowadays people, in general, cannot handle too much criticism, be it self-criticism or external criticism. That being the case, to answer one of your questions, I don’t think that a group of people working together would help at all. IMHO, I think it would cause people to shy away even more or to be forthcoming about lesser faults rather than addressing the large, perhaps more embarrassing, ones.

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