God created us with a specific set of talents. Our purpose in life is to maximize that potential. Cheshbon is the way to do it.
A key to the teshuva process is to make a plan that will liberate you from the things that hold you back. Without a plan, it is hard to show God that you are seriously committed to change in the future. We must evaluate where we are and where we need to go. The Hebrew word for this evaluation is cheshbon, which means “a spiritual accounting.”
The first step in making a plan is to determine your goals.
What do I want my life to look like five years from now?
How will I implement these goals?
Do I have a series of more realistic, short-term goals?
What system will I use to monitor my progress?
Think of the power of such a system when applied to relationships, career, and spirituality! If you see a potential difficulty brewing, take the time now to deal with it before it becomes a major problem later.
The beauty of cheshbon is that it not only safeguards us from making mistakes, but it also increases our productivity and pleasure in the areas where we already excel.
Try the following exercise: On a sheet of paper, write out your “inventory” list, and then for each area complete the following statement: “One year from now, I would have more satisfaction in this area if…?
There are many different types of cheshbon systems to choose from. There is no one right way to do this for every person. You might try one and then find out that it isn’t for you. But by all means don’t quit. Try experimenting with another system.
SETTING LIFETIME GOALS
The power of making a cheshbon is explained in “The Path of the Just,” the Ramchal’s classic 17th century work of Jewish ethics:
“A person should observe all his actions and watch over all his ways so as not to perpetuate a bad trait, let alone a sin or a crime. A person needs to carefully examine his ways and weigh them daily — just as a successful businessperson constantly evaluates all his undertakings so that nothing goes wrong. A person should set aside definite times and hours for this evaluation so that it isn’t performed haphazardly, but rather is conducted with the greatest regularity… for it yields rich returns.”
The Ramchal suggests making a long term plan for our personal lives in the same way a company would make one for business. Every company has a plan with directions, dates and deadlines for each step in their future. Shouldn’t we have one as well?
It is often difficult to get perspective on this question, so try asking yourself in the following way: “When I die, what will be written on my tombstone? Will it say that I was fashionably dressed? Or that I ate in all the best restaurants? Or that I drove a fancy sports car?”
Here’s a 15-minute exercise for getting in touch with what you really want out of life. Take a piece of paper, and write along the top:
“What are my lifetime goals?”
Now take two minutes and write down whatever you can think of. Make your list as all-inclusive as you can. Don’t worry for now about how you might achieve these goals. Just write down whatever comes into your head.
Many people have unconscious goals and wishes that are buried deep in their personality. But they avoid thinking about them because they don’t believe it’s possible to ever achieve them. By doing this exercise, these ideas will rise to the surface. Don’t be scared to ask those questions that have been piling up inside you. You’ll feel much better once you do.
Now, for a different perspective, take a new sheet of paper and write down another question:
“If I knew I only had one year to live, how would I spend my time?”
Again — don’t get lost in thinking too much. Just write.
TAKE AN INVENTORY OF YOUR LIFE
Try the following exercise: Write out a list of all the major areas of your life. These will be the specific areas that you will monitor on a regular basis — either daily, weekly or monthly. For each category, identify specific questions that cut to the core of the issue. Try to be as comprehensive as you can.
Here are some possible areas you might choose:
Relationships. Am I spending quality time with people I care about? Am I showing enough patience, compassion and respect toward co-workers, friends — and strangers? Do I look for virtues in others? Do I listen attentively to others? Do I take joy in the success and accomplishments of others?
Spirituality. Am I focused on appreciating the beauty and unity of nature? Do I pray with concentration and understanding? Do I realize that God is the source of all life, including the challenges as well?
Character development. Am I aware of times when I am arrogant, sarcastic or critical? Do I appreciate the pleasure of all that I have — both materially and spiritually? Am I careful not to waste precious time?
Torah Study. Have I set aside specific times daily for Torah study? Have I worked to make difficult Torah concepts relevant to my life today? Have I progressed in my knowledge of Hebrew, the Bible, Jewish philosophy and history?
Career. Have I selected a career that satisfies my innate need for meaning and accomplishment? Have I created a work environment free of jealousy, gossip, and immodest behavior?
Global and Community Concerns. Am I actively involved in contributing to the improvement of my community? Am I idealistic about the possibility of repairing the world? Am I engaged in communicating this ideal to others? Do I feel pain for fellow Jews who are assimilated and estranged from their heritage?
Health. Am I eating well and exercising regularly? Am I aware of relevant new medical information?
Financial. Do I have a plan for handling unforeseen expenses? Am I quick to pay off debts? Do I give tzedakah regularly?
Cheshbon. Have I clearly established short-term and long-term goals? Are my actions leading to those goals? Do I have a workable system for monitoring my progress?
This list is by no means exhaustive. Its purpose is merely to help get your own gears turning.
PINPOINT YOUR GOALS
Now, spend some time refining your lists, in a way that will identify your three most important goals. Then write these three in order of priority. You have now finished a “Lifetime Goals Statement.”
After you finish, ask yourself, “Can I make this reality?” Brainstorm different ways of overcoming whatever obstacles that prevent you from getting where you want to go.
To check the veracity of your list, try asking yourself every day: “How are my priorities contributing to something meaningful being written on my tombstone?” This sets apart those who fall into traps and those who don’t.
God created us with a specific set of talents, limitations and circumstances. Our purpose in life is to understand how we can use our gifts (and challenges) to maximize our potential. Cheshbon is the Jewish way of achieving this. We can blaze a path that will motivate and excite us in a powerful way. This is the time of the year to do cheshbon, to bring us back to the basics of life and its purpose.
SOME PRACTICAL ADVICE
One suggestion for implementing cheshbon is to have a “penalty system.” This idea is not for everybody. It is only for those who like a strong, emotional incentive to get something done. The idea is to assign penalties for certain things that you desperately want to achieve.
Lets say, for example, that you want to get up 30 minutes earlier every morning in order to learn Torah. But it just isn’t happening! So you tell your roommate: “I’ll give you $10 every time I wake up late.” This is quite an incentive! (Additionally, you may also stipulate that if you learn Torah an EXTRA half-hour that evening, you can get the money back.)
This system has been proven to strongly motivate people who have been unable to otherwise get moving. But a few words of caution. Make all your commitments for a short time only, and allow for periodic adjustments. Also, in order that your commitment should not be considered an official “vow” according to Torah law (which carries with it many legal details), say the phrase bli neder [which means "this is not a vow"] when making your commitment.
Start brainstorming ideas. Come up with specific, practical solutions to give you more satisfaction. Implement these ideas in a weekly program — and before long you will see the blossoming of a new you!