Question:

I've been told that in the month of Elul, we are supposed to do a cheshbon hanefesh – "an accounting of the soul." Though I have a bachelor's degree in mathematics, I still can't figure this one out.

Mathematics deals with dry numbers, whereas an "accounting of the soul," as suggested by its name, deals with matters of the heart and soul.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, gives a relevant parallel to the cheshbon hanefesh: the account and balance sheet every business creates yearly.

Now, who actually needs such an accounting? Some may argue that it's necessary for the IRS, but any businessman knows that without a balance sheet he has no way of knowing whether his business drew profits or losses. The fact that a store is full of shoppers doesn't say anything; people may come to browse and compare prices, but do not make purchases. Only when the owner draws up a proper balance sheet does he know whether his business is profitable and the year successful.

We, too, can be busy from morning to night, but once a year, we need to take time off to contemplate our most important "business"—that is, our service of our Creator. Have we progressed towards this goal in the past year? Have we improved our relationship with G‑d? Have we become better people, better Jews?

Allow me to suggest a practical guide for conducting a cheshbon hanefesh. It may take some time, there's no need to complete it in one day.

Step One:

Draw two large squares on a paper. Title the first one: "Me and G‑d"; the second: "Me and My Fellows."

Step Two:

In the "Me and G‑d" category, write down the various religious ritual mitzvot you observe – e.g., tefillin, kosher and Shabbat observance – and the degree to which you observe them. Next to each of these mitzvot, write down whether this is an area in which you incurred a profit or loss in the past year.

Keep in mind that identical balance sheets can indicate a profit for one person and a loss for another. For example, a man who began putting on tefillin this year who writes, "I put on tefillin almost every day" has shown a profit; for someone putting on tefillin since the age of thirteen, it is considered a loss.

Step Three:

In the "Me and My Fellows" section, write down all your notable relationships—e.g., your children, spouse, parents, friends, work buddies, and acquaintances. Here, too, write down next to each one whether you became closer to these people, distanced yourself, or did things you'd have been better off not doing...

Step Four:

The next two steps are the most important ones; without them, all the time invested in this accounting goes down the drain.

Take the "losses" of the year, and turn them into profits. Ask yourself, how can I be a better parent? How can I ensure that I put on tefillin daily? How can I improve the atmosphere in my home? How can I devote more time to Torah study? And should I be expanding my business? Are there other areas that don't even yet exist on my balance sheet that I should explore? A new mitzvah? A new relationship?

Step Five:

Until now, all the reckoning has been relatively quantifiable, and as such not so difficult. This step takes it to another level altogether.

Now it's time to look beyond all the individual behaviors, and analyze the patterns. Or to put it differently, to look at the inner soul workings that caused all the profits and losses.

Why are you failing in certain areas? What is your perspective on life? How important to you are your relationships? Do you have a deep-seated commitment to fulfill your spiritual calling in life?

Once you have a better picture of who you are now, and who you'd like to be, then come the High Holidays you are ready to get under the hood and make the necessary changes and commitments.

You can become a different person.

This soul-searching is a cheshbon hanefesh. Such work takes time, and many a businessman shuts down his operations for a day in order to draw up his yearly report. But He, G‑d Above, amply rewards with a successful and blessed new year.