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Middot Series #12: Spiritual Accounting: Putting it into Practice

September 18, 2017 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Harvey S. Hecker Character Development Series: A system for constant self-assessment is essential for real change.

Exploring the principles and techniques for living with more kindness, discipline, patience and compassion doesn't guarantee success in practical, everyday behavior. Too often, we find ourselves losing patience, having a pang of envy, or making a hasty, undisciplined choice.

What is the secret to putting our ideals into practice?

The Torah (Numbers 21:27) speaks of "the rulers who come to Cheshbon." (Cheshbon is both the name of a place, and the word for "accounting.") The Talmud1 beautifully explains: Those who "rule" themselves with discipline are those who practice "accounting," i.e. ongoing self-assessment.

Without a spiritual accounting, we're drifting with the winds.

Without Cheshbon, a spiritual accounting, we're likely to remain in a state of default, drifting with the winds, our precious time and attention constantly diverted.

The key is a consistent, reliable system of self-assessment. Just as a businessperson regularly reviews the ledgers – daily, weekly, monthly – to evaluate cost-benefit, so too Cheshbon, a spiritual accounting, means concretizing a practical plan to keep us focused2 on our aspirations and motivations, and ensure that our actions align with our goals. We regularly revisit these fundamental questions:

  1. What am I living for? Why does my life matter?
  2. Do I have a plan to attain fulfillment?
  3. Are my actions on track?

Why Am I Here?

Jewish tradition begins with the premise that every human being was created with a unique life purpose. In Talmudic terms, "Adam was created alone, so that every human should say: The world was created for me alone."3 Because no two people are identical,4 your unique perspective on the universe can be understood and appreciated as only you can. This reveals your special "life purpose" for bettering the world.

Here are some questions to trigger your thinking:

  • What makes my life meaningful?
  • In what situations do I feel most present and alive?
  • If circumstances permitted, what would I do passionately – every day, for free?
  • What is my unique combination of skills and experience?
  • In my quietest moments, what do I yearn for?
  • What does God want from me?
  • What do I hope will be the sum total of my life activities?

Answering these questions is an ongoing process that requires patience and diligence. In the words of the inimitable Charley Brown: Sometimes I lie awake at bed in night and ask myself: Where have I gone wrong? Then a voice inside me says: This will take more than one night.

Stage 1: Your Personal Mission Statement

The first step toward self-awareness is to craft your Personal Mission Statement. The Cheshbon system delineates three steps to define what makes you tick:

[A] Define Core Values

Make a list of your "core life values" that guide your plans and decisions. For example, define your position on the values of:

  • Good health – proper eating, exercise, sleep
  • Equality – fairness and respect for every human being
  • Stable marriage and family life
  • Ethical and supportive community
  • the Jewish people and the Land of Israel
  • Torah study (and teaching to others)

The clearer you articulate these core values, the better you're able to draft a powerful life mission statement.

[B] Prioritize Your Values

Because our time and resources are so limited, we have to allocate wisely.

Rank each of your core values in order of priority. Knowing their relative importance will help you resolve conflicts, engage in effective goal-setting, and keep your focus away from trivialities. We have to eat, but how much time and effort should we devote to it?

Using your core values as a guide, now articulate an aspirational statement that reflects your view of a perfect world. For example:

I want to live in a world filled with God-consciousness that fosters kindness, love, compassion and peace.

[C] Craft Your Mission Statement

Next, define your "Mission Statement" – your unique role in bringing this ideal worldview to fruition.

Think of those moments you've felt most connected, where life seems to flow through you with no resistance. Touch that core self, the point from which your life's passion emanates.

"Taking life seriously" means giving this at least as much attention as you would searching for a job or a spouse. As Rabbi Noah Weinberg said: "Know what you're living for. Until then, you haven't begun to live."

Once you have your answer, embed it in neon lights at the forefront of your mind. That is your guiding light, the very purpose of your existence.

Stage 2: Personal Action Plan

At this stage, we now need to get practical. For while we can envision greatness, we are far from that ideal. To bring things back down to Earth, you'll need to formulate a Personal Action Plan – a practical, strategic guide of goals, timetables and benchmarks that drives all your thoughts and actions toward your Life Mission. One way to identify this game-changer is to consider:

If I only had one year to live, how would I want my life to look different?

But don't bite off more than you can chew. Continually break down your goal into shorter, incremental goals. The longest journey begins with a single step.

The basis of your action plan is the One Big Thing – a single "call to action" that can most assist your goal of becoming the person you aspire to be. In other words, if you could change just one thing about yourself, what would it be?

The next step is a commitment to consistently fulfill this call to action:

During the next year, to help actualize my Life Mission, I firmly commit to [describe one action].

Let's take the hypothetical case of Mike, a Jewish 30-something whose goal is to better understand God, himself, and the world. In identifying the One Big Thing to most positively alter life's landscape, Mike chooses to invest time exploring the Torah, the all-time best-seller. Mike's "call to action" might read like this:

During the next year, to help actualize my Life Mission, I commit to studying the entire Five Books of Moses.

Now comes implementation, where the rubber hits the road. Mike could solidify his goal with this set of commitments:

  • I will complete the cycle in one year by studying the weekly Torah portion.
  • To use my time productively, I will devote 20 minutes of my daily commute to Torah study.
  • I will also arrange a study partner to meet with every Thursday evening for 60 minutes.
  • Finally, in appreciation for the wisdom gained, I will try to share my inspiration with others.

Stage 3: Ongoing Self-assessment

Now comes the nuts and bolts – the work of determining when and where you're losing ground. An ongoing system of assessment is absolutely crucial for success.5 Don't wait until "inspiration hits." Schedule specific times to audit your inner life. This will help you to stay on course, gauge your progress and, as necessary, recalibrate your approach.

Compare your "call to action" to the reality of life unfolding. Write down some recent incidents where your actions fell short of the goal. Identify the crux of that shortcoming, then relentlessly drill down on that until you see a shift in behavior.

The more clearly we've defined our mission statement and action plan, the more we can stay focused throughout the day and act consistent with our goals. Otherwise, we're in a maze, bumping around in the dark.

Here are 7 rules for effective Cheshbon, spiritual accounting:

(1) WEEKLY – Conduct your spiritual accounting at a fixed, pre-scheduled time.6 For the average person, a weekly evaluation works best. (Daily may be too intense, and monthly is insufficient to monitor with an effective degree of detail.)

To do this properly, you'll need a solid hour. Choose a time when you are well-rested and your head is clear from emails, errands, etc. My personal preference is Saturday night, after a refreshing Shabbat.

(2) FOCUS Find a quiet place to fully focus without distraction – e.g., forest, synagogue, bedroom. Relax, close your eyes, and repeat aloud your "Life Mission" statement and your call to action. Do they resonate? Do you feel connected and focused? If not, readjust.

(3) ALOUD Speak aloud in conversation with yourself. Address yourself by first name as a close friend, or even look in the mirror. There is power in verbally speaking out your goal to bring it to fruition. Otherwise, it lies in your heart, untapped and unfulfilled.7

(4) DETAILS – The devil is in the details. If you don't focus on the small things, the foundation will rot. Review where you advanced toward your goal, and where you lost ground. Try to detect a pattern of circumstances and conditions. Do you tend to make mistakes when you are tired or hungry? How can you avoid repeating those circumstances in the future?

On the other hand, don't expect or demand perfection. No human being is perfect.8 Accept upon yourself only to search for answers, not to have them all. Your Life Mission Statement is aspirational – meant as a motivator, not a path to depression and despair.

Take the time as well to celebrate success, when you won an internal battle. What was your greatest moment today? What was the catalyst that made it happen? How have you furthered your goal? How might you replicate such victories?

(5) ACCOUNTABILITY – Given our natural propensity to avoid the hard work of Cheshbon, it is crucial to have an "accountability partner."9 This can be either a paid life coach, or a chavruta-style "Cheshbon Buddy," where you report to each other (e.g. via email or a live video meeting) to share insights.

One incentive for staying on track is a "penalty system," where failure to do one's Cheshbon results in a "moderately painful" monetary fine.

My most effective Cheshbon experience was as part of a small group committed to daily Cheshbon. We would individually self-assess, then regroup to share insights and feedback. Most importantly, we felt a sense of shared responsibility to encourage each other and take this seriously.

(6) OBJECTIVITY – "Be a judge, not a lawyer," the Talmud exhorts.10 Strive to understand what is rationally true, not what you wish to be so. Imagine you're hovering over the situation as an objective observer.

Yet with our many defenses and insecurities, such objectivity is difficult to achieve. In the words of our Sages, a person is able to identify everyone's faults except his own.11

If you're serious, ask a few close friends to tell you the one thing you'd be best off changing. This will be enormously painful, because they'll probably hit your most vulnerable spot. (That's what makes it so valuable.)

Whether you agree with the criticism or not, always show gratitude for feedback: "Thank you for pointing that out. I'll work on it."12


In addition to the weekly analysis, successful spiritual accounting includes supplementary times:

  • DAILY: Begin each day with a morning affirmation, a simple phrase that captures the ideal of your Life Mission, as well as your call to action. Every evening, e.g. before going to sleep, take 60 seconds to review your day and project an inspired state of mind for awakening the next morning.
  • MONTHLY: Once a month, compare your deeds of the past week to other weeks, looking for patterns of profit and loss.
  • ANNUALLY, conduct a full-fledged stock-taking.

Throughout the day, top Cheshbon experts engage in constant “real-time” awareness and analysis: Why am I speaking this way, spending this money, spending this time, getting close to this person, etc? This enables you to adjust on the fly and identify unproductive behavior before it can do damage.

High Holidays

This idea of monitoring progress is built into the Jewish calendar. We have a weekly Shabbat, a monthly Rosh Chodesh, and - in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah, the "Day of Judgment" - we analyze the previous year. This is a particularly auspicious time to gain clarity and commit to your Personal Mission Statement and Action Plan. As the Sages say: "If there is judgment down below, there is no need for judgment up above."13

This year, when the shofar blows, think about these life essentials:

  • Priorities: Have I defined my mission and set clear, achievable goals?
  • Focus: Am I grounded, organized and free of distractions?
  • Discipline: Do I maximize my time, and act consistently toward my goal?
  • Objectivity: Do I have a system to ensure that my actions are straight, balanced and free of bias?
  • Patience: Do I take pleasure in my achievements, calm in the knowledge that everything is a process?
  • Integrity: Do I live with the credo that no gain is worthwhile if it comes at the expense of my core values?

The Jewish new year begins with zero-based budgeting, affording us no presumptive status. We stand before God with the sobering knowledge that "His Cheshbon" is a cost-benefit ratio of retaining my life for another year.

The best life insurance policy is to become important to God's plan. Present a convincing case that you value every moment of life. Discover your unique mission and relentlessly pursue it. Get a notebook, an accountability partner, and start today.

For as the great Hillel said: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?... And if not now, when?"14


  • "Path of the Just" (Mesilat Yesharim) – Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto
  • "Gates of Repentance" (Sha'arey Teshuva – Shar 3) – Rabbeinu Yona
  • "Duties of the Heart" (Chovot HaLevavot – Sha'ar Cheshbon Hanefesh) – Rabbeinu Bechayeh
  • Tanya (ch. 28) – Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi
  • Sefer Cheshbon HaNefesh – Rabbi Mendel of Satanov
  • Hachsharat Avreichem (ch. 13) – Rabbi Kalonymus K. Shapira


About this Series

Harvey Hecker is proud to present the Harvey Hecker Character Development Series, with new modules every month. We'll begin by exploring the two basic traits of Kindness and Discipline. We'll then explore other key traits including Gratitude, Empathy and more.

The series is dedicated in memory of Harvey Hecker, the former President of Aish International, who believed that changing the world begins with ethics and integrity. Mr. Hecker was a master at calmly and appropriately dealing with others, especially amidst challenging situations. He gave freely of his time and wisdom, showing honor and humility to all. His mantra: "Strive to do the right thing." We hope this series will honor his memory.

1. Baba Batra 78b
2. In Talmudic terms: "Compare the cost of doing the right thing, versus its gain; also compare the gain of doing something wrong, versus its cost" (Baba Batra 78b).
3. Talmud – Sanhedrin 37a
4. Talmud – Brachot 58a
5. Path of the Just (Mesilat Yesharim) – chapter 3.
6. Mishnah Berurah 239:9
7. Path of the Just (Mesilat Yesharim)
8. Talmud – Nega’im 2:5
9. Maimonides – "Eight Chapters" (Introduction to Avot 3)
10. Talmud – Avot 1:8
11. Talmud – Nega’im 2:5
12. In the words of the Talmud (Baba Kama 92b): If people keep calling you a donkey, maybe it’s time to put on a saddle.
13. Midrash Tanchumah (Mishpatim 4)
14. Talmud – Avot 1:14

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