Postville Mashpia Prepares ‘Cheshbon Hanefesh Aid’

Elul is the month of cheshbon nefesh, but what does that actually mean, and how does one do one? Rabbi Avraham Katz, mashpia in Postville Yeshiva prepared a ‘Cheshbon Hanefesh Aid’ to help.

By Rabbi Avraham Katz
Mashpia at Yeshiva Bais Shalom of Postville Iowa, and author of “A Practical Guide to Davening”

We are now in the end of the month of Elul. Everyone has been told that Elul is the month of “chesbon nefesh” of self-evaluation, of introspection into our service of Hashem.

Well, I have three questions on this:

1) Why is it so important to do a chesbon nefesh, to stop and think about what I’m doing, wouldn’t my time be better spent actually doing more good things, rather than stopping everything to think and evaluate?

2) Isn’t it depressing to do a chesbon nefesh, to think about what I’m not doing properly, why would I want to be depressed, doesn’t Hashem want us to be happy and serve Him with joy?

3)How are you supposed to do this “chesbon nefesh” anyways, how are you supposed to go through everything in your avodas Hashem, won’t that be too hard?

Let’s see if we can find the answers to these questions:

1) In Hayom Yom for 27 Menachem Av (which was Shabbos Mevarchim Elul that year) the Frierdike Rebbe explains: In a physical business, the only way that a person can know if it is actually profitable, and to know how to increase revenue, is to make a periodical accounting of the entire business.

If a person runs a business without any accounting, he will never know if the amount he is spending on workers, rent, materials etc. is actually outweighed by the revenue. If the revenue is not significantly more than expenses, then not only will he come out losing money, his business will end up failing. In addition, even if his revenue is more than expenses, he will not know how to improve his business without knowing what are the weak points that need extra attention

The same thing is true with our spiritual “business” of bringing ourselves and other Yidden closer to Hashem through Torah and Mitzvos:

The only way to know if we are actually advancing in our service of Hashem, and are serving Hashem better this year than last year, is if we make a yearly (at least) evaluation of our service of Hashem.

In Tanya, chapter 15, the Alter Rebbe explains that a person’s main goal in life is to “work on himself” to grow in his service of Hashem. Even if a person is already “frum” and “chassidish,” he now needs to see how to grow from whatever level he is on. The goal of life is not to reach a certain level, and then go on cruise control. 

The goal of life is to constantly grow, and constantly pull ourselves closer to Hashem. The only way a person can know if they are growing in their Yiddishkeit, or chas veshalom the opposite, is by making a chesbon nefesh.

In addition, even if a person wants to grow in Yiddishkeit, he will not even know what areas he needs to focus on the most to work on if he doesn’t make a periodic chesbon nefesh.

The goal of chesbon nefesh is not to put ourselves down, to think about how we are not serving Hashem properly. Just the opposite, the goal is to see how we can improve in our service of Hashem, which will bring us closer to Hashem, and, in the end, we will be much happier than we were before the chesbon nefesh, as we rejoice in our new and deeper connection to Hashem.

In Parshas Noach 5752 the Rebbe explains:

There are two main approaches to chesbon nefesh: 1) To focus on the details of every single aspect of observance of mitzvos through following halacha etc. and improve every detail one by one; 2) To focus on getting excited about learning and davening and mivtzoim, and by working up an excitement in avodas Hashem a person will automatically fix up other problems in his avodas Hashem.

The truth is that each of these two approaches has an advantage, and the correct approach is to combine both approaches: A person should get excited about coming close to Hashem, and focus on improving every detail – knowing that improving this detail will improve everything in his Yiddishkeit and bring him much closer to Hashem.

With that in mind, it shouldn’t be depressing to do a chesbon nefesh. Instead, a person should be happy to have the opportunity to come closer to Hashem with each and every detail in their avoda that they improve.

3) How do we actually do a chesbon nefesh? There are two general parts of the chesbon nefesh:

  1. To say Krias Shema Al Hamita properly, and stop before viduy (or before אנא בכח on Shabbos and Yom Tov) to think about our day. To think about what we did that we are proud of and want to learn to repeat; and what we should work on to do differently next time.
  2. To make a time to actually write out a detailed accounting of all aspects of our service of Hashem, of our Torah study, davening, ahavas Yisrael etc.

To help with this, with Hashem’s help I have prepared a “chesbon nefesh aid” of guided chesbon nefesh, questions we can ask ourselves in our own personal chesbon nefesh. I hope you will find it useful in your own chesbon nefesh.

This is a link to download a pdf of the “chesbon nefesh aid”, or a word doc version so you can adjust it for your own needs

Please let me know if it was helpful to you or if you have any suggestions on how to improve it.

It is my intention bezras Hashem in the coming year to put out – bli neder – more articles and more guides/aids to help with more specific aspects of the chesbon nefesh.

Kesiva Vachasima Tove Leshana Tova Umesuka!

For comments (or if the link isn’t working for you) please email me at [email protected]

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  1. Thanks for this article! Is this applicable to women as well? Does anyone have a cheshbon nefesh chart for women?

    In general Chassidus seems to be applied in Sichos and maamarim to men- yoshvei ohel and baalei eisek.

    Is there any avoda ladder for women?

    1. BH
      The general idea of Chesbon nefesh applies equally to women as to men. Some of the specific details of the chesbon nefesh will be different, for example, less emphasis on certain areas of Torah learning (like gemara let’s say) and more emphasis on creating a Chassidishe home etc.; different mitzvos to focus on improving etc. For more details a woman mashpiah should be consulted. I made the word doc version available for download so that you can change it to fit with the chesbon nefesh most appropriate to your situation.
      In regards to whether in general Chassidus applies to women as much as to men, it certainly does. It may be written in the context of someone speaking to men, but the ideas of Chassidus apply equally to women and men.
      This is also part of the role of the woman mashpiah for women, to show them how to practically apply Chassidus in their lives.

      1. While what you’re saying is certainly true, I believe the nuance must be emphasized more.

        The difference between the avoda of men and women is not just in WHAT particular avodos they do, but also in HOW they do avodas Hashem in general.

        While men are encouraged to engage in intense and rigorous avodas Hashem, a woman’s avoda is to live in the world with the goal of using it lsheim Shomayim. Women practicing men’s style avoda has led to disastrous results for themselves and their families.

        That’s why it’s critical that every person have a good mashpia who knows and teaches the mesorah of chassidim for each person and stage.

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