Yom Kippur Sermon: Cheshbon HaNefesh- Accounting of the Soul

Posted on October 19, 2022

It occurred to me that this moment might be like returning home after a long journey.  Everything appears incredibly familiar and, at the same time, somehow different. As I imagined, so it is!  

It is so very good to be home. 

Seeing those of you with whom I shared nineteen years of smiles and tears, of dreaming and building and enjoying this community is always special. And to new generations that found your way here in the past seventeen years (wise decisions) your energy and vitality are a welcome infusion.  

A special word of gratitude to Rabbi Danny for inviting me to be here now.  It was mid-summer. The conversation went something like this: “Herman, what would you like to do for the holidays. Anything. Yizkor? Rosh Hashanah? Perhaps Kol Nidrei?”

It was like throwing bait to a hungry fish. I took the bait, and I was snagged. Thank you, Danny, for this unusual privilege. 

A few days before Rosh Hashanah, I went to Rosenfeld’s Bakery to purchase Yom Tov challot.   As I searched for a parking space (If you have ever been to this bakery, you know that it is an almost impossible task!) I saw a young man, clearly, a Rosenfeld’s employee. I rolled down my window and asked, “Do you have holiday challot today?”  With a gentle smile he shook his head, communicating that he didn’t speak English. 

I found a parking space on the far side of the building. A few minutes later, I left Rosenfeld’s with a shopping bag filled with the prize in one hand, my cane in the other. I started to climb the five or six steps to the street level. The same young man was standing there. He saw me struggling — actually in pain — and gestured to carry the bag. Relieved, a handed it to him and with difficulty climbed the steps. He accompanied me, opened the car door and deposited the challot. Of course, I expressed gratitude. He smiled without a word, and we went our separate ways.   

Pause. Contemplate what happened? For now, just hold on to it. We will come back to it.  

The task of this day, actually this entire period, is two-fold: Viddui – a self-examination of our behavior and t’shuvah – turning from wrong  paths to live in closer harmony with noble values at the core of  Torah – Jewish teachings. 

Here is my take on this process. 

My Viddui: 

Al cheit she’chechati… For the mistakes I have made. 

Al cheit she’chetati…For the wrong paths I have traveled. 

Al cheit she’chetati… …For behaviors I regret. 

  1. By putting career and ambition before my family’s welfare. 
  2. By hearing, but not listening. 
  3. By seeing without pausing to absorb/appreciate.  
  4. By judging others by how they looked. 
  5. By allowing hubris to replace true understanding 
  6. By believing that I could solve another’s problems  
  7. By neglecting friendships. 
  8. By running and rushing and missing the awesome and the holy around me and in others.
  9. By being stubborn, allowing ego to distort thoughtful judgment. Inflating my ego. 
  10. By giving less than my share of tzedakah. 
  11. By believing that I am as good a person as I can be. 

The Problem 

How many times have I tapped my chest and said such words? How many alphabetical lists of wrong doings have I checked off as “not applicable”?  

How many catalogues of wrong doing, how many machzorim have passed through my lips?! 

And year after year my “soul-searching” did not change my behavior very much. 

Of course, I tried. Noble efforts to be a better person, a better Jew. Perhaps this annual ritual of confession promoted a change here or there… for the moment. But the mind is capable of unlimited tricks: denial, deception, defensiveness, and rationalization. Yes, I need such mechanisms to negotiate the world, to function in it. And I am the same. I have not changed very much!  

How can I move this profound exercise in honest self-examination from my lips to my hands, from my head to my heart? How can I engage in genuine, sustained t’shuvah? 

Perhaps there is another way. Simple and profoundly challenging.  And if successful, life changing. 

Here, in intensely collapsed outline is what I should do, must try to do.  

Close the book. 

Go home. 

Sit alone, without distractions. 

Start asking myself hard questions. 

Listen to my heart, not just to my mind. Listen for heart’s feelings, longings, fears, and hopes.  

And with these tools I am ready to practice Cheshbon Hanefesh, a spiritual assessment. Cheshbon is the Hebrew word for counting, assessing, probing. Cheshbon Hanefesh, a summing up of who I am when I look deep beneath the multiple facades so easily constructed.  

Questions for Cheshbon Hanefesh: 

  1.  Why am I here, traveling from birth to death?  
  2. What is my purpose in life, in being alive?  
  3. What will make the struggle from day to day worthwhile, pleasurable, fulfilling?   
  4. Who do I love? How do I demonstrate my love?   
  5. Time is fleeting so what’s really important? What less so?  
  6. What is lasting? What less important?   
  7. What is sacred? Holy?  
  8. What does God want me to do? to be? 

Inevitably Cheshbon Hanefesh leads me to contemplate my mortality.  Hopefully, I will reach towards meah v’esrim, 120 years, more or less.  But as we say, life can turn on a dime.  Long ago a rabbi said it even better.  “Shuvu… Return, one day before you die.”  

I am going to die. Sooner or later. (Hopefully, the latter!)  

And this leads to a conclusion., the moment of Spiritual Awakening: 

If my days are finite –limited – the importance of each day is magnified. Each one takes on a sense of urgency. Each day is, in a sense, sacred, to be revered, handled with exquisite care. More questions: 

  1. How do I want to spend these precious days?  
  2. What is important, lasting? Which trivial thoughts and behaviors are simply clutter? 
  3. What experiences do I want to share with those closest to me? What gifts do I want to give them?  
  4. How do I want to be remembered? What is my legacy?  
  5. Has my existence made any difference… in there live of my wife, my children, my parents, my grandparents, to all the generations of Jewish people that preceded me? 

All of these questions lead me to a new way to look at myself, my behavior, my values, the people and the world around me bad, sometimes, God. I call it a “Spiritual Awakening. 

I will admit that it is easier for me, an octogenarian, to think of my mortality. You may wish I had selected a more upbeat message.  

But the message of Yom Kippur is for all of us. The liturgy reminds us of life’s uncertainty. The act of fasting underscores just how fragile we are. This day places the reality of life’s ultimate limit squarely in our faces. There is no honest escape. 

Cheshbon Hanefesh.  A deep search to understand the essence of who I am as a human being and my place in the universe.   

Here I focus on what is permanent and lasting, worthy of my embrace.  

In words, deeply felt: I’m sorry. I was wrong, forgive me, Thank you 

Here I acquire deeper appreciation for the exquisite and unfathomable intricacies of nature from the smallest particle of a flower and in the grandest range of mountains, in the first cry of a newborn and in the dying wheeze of the aged. Such moments are present in a student’s discovery and in the reconciling embrace of one-time enemies, in the modest labors of a peasant to feed his family. Radical amazement. 

With this sense of awe, life becomes more beautiful, more worth living. And death acceptable!  

Here my link to all of humanity is awakened and revered. 

Here is the realm of teshuvah. 

Which brings me back full circle to that moment outside Rosenfeld’s bakery. Something happened that defies rational understanding, indeed no words were spoken. I was a human being in need. I was able to acknowledge my fragility, my dependency, and my need for an assistance. Another human being, a stranger, responding to the compassion within him, extended his hand.  

There was a momentary connection between us. I call it an instant of kedushah, of sacred interaction that transcended time and place and rational thought.  

When we are spiritually awake, we will find many such moments. They exist everywhere. We will make them happen. We will hunger for them and seek them out in relationships with our loved ones and with strangers, in the common tasks of every day and in the significant markers of our cycle of life. We will not be surpassed to find these sparks of holiness in the market place and we will anticipate their presence in our synagogues.   

We may even come to believe that such moments are built into the creation of the universe itself. These moments carry the light that dispels the cosmic darkness; they are power that pushes against chaos.  

On this Yom Kippur, may your Cheshbon Hanefesh awaken for us the most important questions and bring filled with sacred meaning.