Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes 

How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets

In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, a year in the life?

While these poetic words by the late playwright Jonathan Larson, were written for the Broadway hit musical, “Rent,” they run through my mind this time of year as we enter the Yamim HaNoraim, the Days of Awe.  It’s Erev Rosh HaShanah 5776; the evening of a holy day that is also known as Yom HaZikaron….the Day of Remembering; the proverbial Book of Life is open, and it’s time to account for the five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes allotted to us this past year, 5775.

Sure, we’ve had the whole month of Elul to prepare for this, to do our metaphorical soul-accounting, our Cheshbon HaNefesh, but Erev Rosh HaShanah is actually here and, once again, most of us are feeling totally unprepared.  So as we begin the Asseret Y’mei T’shuvah, the ten days of T’shuvah/returning/repentance, let’s attempt to do our final Cheshbon HaNefesh, our soul reckoning, one last time… for earnest.

Taking stock of where we’ve been requires more than simply looking in the rear view mirror.  It’s a tricky business.  Looking back over the year, reviewing how we’ve treated one another, how we’ve interacted with our loved ones, how we’ve participated in the community, how we’ve treated our own body, and how we’ve related to the Divine, requires a certain amount of clarity and honestly.  On one hand, we can certainly cloud our memories by telling ourselves stories to justify where we’ve missed the mark.  And, on the other level, if we are honest with ourselves, what we see can be unnerving.  We’re then faced with the challenge of looking at our failings without succumbing to a downward spiral of self-condemnation.  Those of us who suffer from low self-esteem can easily fall into a self-destructive trap; but that’s not what this taking stock of ourselves is supposed to do.  Honestly seeing our failings allows us to use that realization as an impetus for acceptance, integration, and, ultimately, change, resulting in personal growth.

We are all fallible.  We all make mistakes.  Remember Lucy and Charlie Brown…

Lucy says:  “Another ballgame lost!  Good grief!!”

Charlie Brown comments:  “I get tired of losing….Everything I do, I lose!

Lucy advises:  “Look at it this way, Charlie Brown.  We learn more from losing than we do from winning.”

Charlie Brown responds:  “That makes me the SMARTEST PERSON IN THE WORLD!!”

A mistake, missing the mark, need not be final; unless we take it as final.  When we’re going somewhere in the car and drive past the place we’re supposed to be going to, we make a course correction, turn left or turn right or make a u-turn and head back to our destination.  When we cheat on our diet, we know that we need to use more self-discipline, cut the carbs and add exercise, and get back on course.  Making mistakes, missing the mark, in matters that involve only us are probably the easiest areas to course-correct.

It gets trickier when our mis-steps involve others.   Alexander Pope famously said:  “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”  Another oft- quoted  writer, that prolific author, “Anonymous,” is quoted as having written:  “To err is human, to blame it on someone else is even more human.”

In his contemporary study called Repentance:  The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah[1], Dr. Louis E. Newman, the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies at Carleton College mentions that he had once done some small ethnographic studies of professional ethics, interviewing physicians and court judges.  Not surprisingly, both groups admitted to struggling with their own moral mistakes.  Clearly doctors making misdiagnoses and judges who allow their own personal biases to affect their decisions can be extremely harmful.  It was interesting that these professionals focused on their own mistakes and how they made themselves feel even more accountable to maintaining the highest standards of their professions.  They motivated themselves to reach higher and make better choices in the future.

Socrates once said:  “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This hits to the very paradox that Cheshbon HaNefesh is:  it asks us to take claim our past and also to disclaim it.  Taking account of our shortcomings needs to be done for the purpose of making course corrections; looking to the past is required, in order to create a better future.  So here we are, given a fabulous tool by our tradition:  The imprimatur for moral regeneration!

On Slichot, about thirty of us gathered and implemented some soul-growing Cheshbon HaNefesh exercises.  In doing the exercises in a group setting, yet keeping our responses to ourselves, we were immersed in the self-accounting with no outside distractions deterring us from the work.  It is clear that there are always distractions and I sincerely doubt that any of us, myself included, feels that we have arrived at Erev Rosh HaShanah having done all the introspective work needed.  In truth, our tradition has given us the next ten days, the Asseret Y’mei T’shuvah to complete the inventory, but it also asks us to do the rest of the job.

And, by the way, lest we fall into the trap of only looking for our misdeeds over the past year, our Cheshbon HaNefesh, our self-examination, should include judging our merits as well….it could very well be that we each hold a treasure-trove of merits, hidden from sight.  Recognizing them in our selves can lead to recognizing them in those with whom we might have had conflict during the past year.

But, it’s not enough to tally up where we’ve missed the mark over the past year.  There is a Chassidic tradition where the Rebbe asks:  “How far do you have to travel to be on the other side of the world?”  The answer is:  Just one step.  Turn around—and you’ll face the opposite direction.  That is T’shuvah/turning…Returning.

And once we’ve made that metaphoric first step, once we’ve turned around, we realize that there are actually five levels to achieving T’shuvah/repentance/return:

1)    We need to admit our mistake to ourselves and to those we’ve wronged.

2)    We need to honestly apologize for the hurt it may have caused.

3)    We need to make amends, restitution, if applicable, or whatever can be done to right the wrong.

4)    We need to pledge never to do the misdeed again.

5)    And, finally, and probably the most challenging step:  We need to fulfill that pledge, and not do the hurt again.

So, let’s charge ourselves to up the ante.  The time is here.  We need to do the remaining work between one another and be able to come with full focus and heart to our davennen, our prayer service on Yom Kippur, in ten days, ready to take it to the next level….to the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Ruach HaKodesh, Bricha Hi.  But now’s the time to take it to the next level.  My sense is that G-d has been ready and willing to help with this soul-accounting, had only we can come half-way.  The Mishkan Al-Masabih says that if one approaches towards G-d one span, G-d will approach the person one cubit; if the person approaches towards G-d one cubit, G-d will come towards the person a fathom.  Approach G-d walking and G-d comes running.  And even if you are bringing sins equivalent to the whole world, the midrash says, that G-d will greet you with forgiveness equal to it.

So now, as we have entered the Yamim HaNoraim, the Days of Awe, let us ask for G-d’s help to complete the introspective work of Cheshbon HaNefesh…Because we cannot take that first step, we cannot turn around even, unless we find the truth of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’ve gone off-course.

We cannot ask for G-d’s forgiveness until we’ve gone through the very tough work of asking forgiveness of those we’ve wronged, and the even harder work of letting go of grudges and forgiving those who’ve wronged us.

Rabbi Karen Kedar poetically speaks of forgiveness as a process, a path without an end, a bridge that leads to restoration of what we have lost.  It is a shift of perspective, a way of being.  It is what we do to our soul when we choose to live in light rather than in darkness.[2]

In her soulful book, The Bridge to Forgiveness : Stories and Prayers for Finding G-d and Restoring Wholeness, speaks of holding on and letting go. There are two kinds of people in the world, she observes:  Those who can forgive and those who can’t.

I tip my kippah to those who can forgive, as I know that when you forgive, the world has opened up inside you.  And, accordingly, when a person cannot forgive, well, something is shut away forever.  Forgiveness is one of the hardest things to do…and so is not forgiving.  Forgiveness is freeing; not forgiving is imprisoning.

The results of this work of Cheshbon HaNefesh and its follow-up T’shuvah, the very work of this season, can be truly transformative.  It takes movement to return….the very word T’shuvah comes from a root Shin-Vov                                                                                                             that indicates movement.  Which way we move is really dependent on from whence we’ve come and to where we’re heading.  Sometimes it helps to simply hold a “bumper sticker” in our mind’s eye…a bumper sticker that reads:  “If I’m heading in the wrong direction, remember:  G-d allows U-turns.”

Reb Simcha Bunam said:  “The sins we commit, these are not the worst things. After all, temptation is powerful and humans are weak.  The great human crime is that we can turn at any time….and we don’t.

There is a daily prayer in our liturgy that has special significance during these Days of Awe.  Lamentations 5:21 reminds us:  “Hashiveinu, Adonai, v’nashuva; chadeish yameinu k’kedem”….”Hashiveinu, Adonai…” )Bring us back to you, O Redeeming One”) This is a call for input from beyond, asking for an affirmation, hoping for a sign, some kind of spiritual experience:  Bring us back, awaken us, remind us, shine Your light upon us, show us your face.  From the depth of our souls, we reach out to G-d…

 “V’Nashuvah” (“and we will return”) …If we are successful, sensing having made a Divine connection, if we feel we achieved some deeper insight, if, G-d willing, we are so blessed as to have an “Ahah” moment, then need to integrate the experience— returning, remaining awake, remembering, every day, every minute of every day.  You see, we are rarely transformed immediately by our spiritual experiences or insights. However powerful they may be, they are only signposts, ephemeral events; nevertheless, they can, and should, inform our being.

Chadeish yameinu k’kedem”….Perhaps this refers to Gan Eden, before the serpent….perhaps it refers to the state of creation before the vessel was shattered….perhaps it refers to that point in our lives, when we were young and pure and filled with potential and hope.  Whatever your concept of K’kedem , as in the beginning, having a sense of where we began can help guide us as we can go forward…for in order to grow, we must go forward…

And in order to go forward, we must confront our past.

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do I measure, a year in my life?

Check, please.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Newman, Dr. Louis E.  Repentance:  The Meaning & Practice of Teshuvah, Jewish Lights Publishers, Woodstock, Vermont, 2010.

[2] Rabbi Karen Kedar.  The Bridge to Forgiveness; Jewish Lights, Woodstock, Vermont, 2007.