Thoughts on the month of Elul

Introspection is important to begin the New Year

In developing any business or refining a craft, it is essential to establish set periods for gathering information and assessing performance. Sometimes this process takes the form of setting goals, while other times it’s gaining an overview of activities to know where you stand. Financial calculations involve income and expenses. In other areas, it’s more about evaluating personnel.
The same type of thorough analysis applies to one’s spiritual performance and character traits. Each person is given a chelek be’olam, an area of the world (i.e., community and people) in which to make an impact. The process of intermittent self-review, to access performance, is called a cheshbon hanefesh, or an accounting of the soul. And this month, Elul, is known as the season of “accounting.”
Unlike Rosh Hashanah — the Day of Judgment — where we stand in awe and concentration in prayer, during Elul we take stock amid our busy schedules, through setting aside time for careful review and self-reflection. To be sure, there are already traditional slots for reflection installed throughout the year. Usually, five minutes of introspection and review at the end of each night is enough to determine what needs to be fixed. Before entering the Shabbat, one looks back and evaluates how the past week went. Then there’s an assessment — right before Rosh Chodesh — when the new month begins. But the accounting that takes place during Elul is different.
Throughout the year, the emphasis is on action. Reviewing our performance is helpful only as it leads to better decision making the following day. Elul, however, is a more comprehensive evaluation. How am I doing in general? Where do I stand in accomplishing my most important goals? How is my relationship with God, within my private time and space? What are my biggest weaknesses? In which areas am I doing particularly well and how can I further commit to cultivating those? The objective is to mentally scan every facet of life and find ways to improve.
Such an examination may appear to be essential for personal growth and beneficial to perform more often. Yet, too much reflection can reduce our productivity by taking time away from study or positive deeds. Our energy, therefore, should be spent not on reviewing past mistakes or making a general assessment, but on judging how best to move forward.
There is another danger when it comes to the more intense reflection: Honest analysis of one’s character and performance, if done in excess or at the wrong time, can be psychologically damaging. Choosing to take a closer look inside oneself is a particularly difficult task — you may not like what you see. Someone, for example, who realizes the extent to which he or she is falling short in crucial areas can naturally become despondent and decide to give up. So, what we don’t see about ourselves, in effect, shields us emotionally.
For this reason, some of the most successful people in the professional arena are also some of the least introspective individuals, seldom stopping to consider how they’re perceived by others around them. At the same time, this failure to reflect allows them to keep moving, to be highly efficient and confident.
If so, the commentaries ask, why should we focus so much attention on intense self-examination during the entire month of Elul? The surface answer is a preparation for the upcoming “Day of Judgment” (i.e., Rosh Hashanah). Change is already in the air. Or, from a more positive angle, there’s an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Knowing that each year brings new mazel — the time to reinvent oneself — adds hope to what otherwise may be a grim personal picture.
But on a deeper level, this type of introspection is placed in Elul because it’s the month of compassion and divine assistance. More specifically, the kabbalistic works relate that during Elul, the 13 Attributes of Mercy — “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth…forgiving of iniquity, willful sin and error, and cleansing…” (Exodus 34:6-7) — are predominant during this time, shining strong behind the scenes.
Explained more concretely, God interacts with creations through various channels or manifestations. The heavenly attribute of din, or, judgment, is designed to make a just, but sharp, assessment which often results in undesirable consequences for us. The attribute of rachamim, mercy, introduces another approach, a warmer relationship with God in which flaws are discounted, and a setting for growth is created. We receive a gust of inspiration rather than fear. This environment of compassion, in turn, allows us to perform an in-depth cheshbon hanefesh — an analysis of where we stand — where we can internalize what we discover without the usual risks or side effects.
So, in this sense, even without the upcoming holidays, Elul would still be designated as a refuge in time, a window of opportunity to evaluate oneself without any excess judgment or pain, to probe within and uncover more resources to accomplish our mission. If we use this month wisely, the stage will be set for a sweet new year.

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