When the Rebbe Rayatz, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, was a young child, he once asked his father: “We have one nose and one mouth. Why do we have two eyes?”

His father, ever-conscious of the opportunity to provide his child with character-building guidance, told him: “One to see the good in other people and the other to see the bad in ourselves.”

This lesson takes on greater significance in the present month, the month of Elul which is a month of preparation for the High Holidays of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, is compared to a time when the owner of a business closes his shop to take inventory. Similarly, at this time of year, we step back and evaluate our conduct.

The Month of Elul

We all like to do things, to make decisions, to see the results and to progress further. If we are successful, we’ll also look back and glow in the halo of achievement for a while, but honestly, we prefer doing much more than reviewing what we have done.

Certainly, there is virtue in continued positive activity, but if we never give our efforts adequate evaluation and assessment, it is possible we will have fired all our cannons while aiming at the wrong target. Moreover, behavior tends to be self-reinforcing. So quite often, we may continue following the same pattern, relearning our mistakes and ingraining them deeper into our personalities.

One of the signs of maturity is for us to contemplate our actions and examine them, considering whether we acted correctly or not. The recognition of the necessity to do this is one of the first signs of growing up spiritually.

Jewish thought puts an emphasis on such careful review. Every day, at the end of the day, we recite the Shema before retiring. That recitation is more than a ritual. Before that recitation, we conscientiously evaluate our conduct throughout the previous day, seeing where we have been successful and where we have failed, where our energies were employed advantageously and where they could have been used more profitably.

This process is carried out with greater intensity every Thursday night, as we assess not only our conduct on that particular day, but throughout the entire week and on the last day of every month, we should think over the entire month and make such an accounting.

All these times, however, are dwarfed by the process of self-analysis that should characterize the month of Elul. Elul is an entire month devoted to examination of our conduct in the previous year and preparation for change and progress in the year to come. Like a storekeeper who closes his operations from time to time to take inventory, this is a month dedicated to taking stock of our conduct and seeing how it can be improved.

Introspection, however, does not always lead to positive results. On the contrary, sometimes, it just makes us heavy, without propelling us forward.

Introspection is valuable when we have a purpose. Then our thoughts are directed to defining our goals and purposes more clearly and seeing whether or not our deeds are aligned with these purposes.

For when a person feels purpose and direction, he is charged with energy and feels the need to accomplish and achieve. He wants to see the goals in which he believes and identifies to be manifested in actual life. Therefore he is both active and reflective. He desires to do, but wants his actions to be constructive and fruitful. So from time to time, he appraises his activities and sees whether they are aligned with his ultimate objective or whether it is necessary to redirect his focus.

When we set aside time to review our conduct with this focus during the month of Elul, we will ensure ourselves a kesivah vachasimah tovah, a good and sweet year in all matters, including the matter of ultimate importance, the coming of Mashiach.

Looking to the Horizon

Our awareness of our individual purpose is intertwined with a consciousness of the ultimate purpose of all mankind. Our Sages state: The world was created solely for Mashiach. G‑d brought man and the cosmos into existence so that the world — and each person individually — will be able to reach the state of unity with G‑d that will be achieved in the era of the Redemption.

Every particular person has a role to play in bringing the world to its ultimate fulfillment. For the unity of the era of the Redemption will be all-encompassing, comprising every element of existence. Each of us has something to do to enable that ultimate purpose to be manifest. For the whole is a composite of its parts. When the parts are not in a state of fulfillment, the whole is also lacking. Thus both our achievements and our shortcomings are not only our private concerns; they affect all existence. Knowing this, we all should define the purpose of each of our lives to use the unique potentials we have been given to bring the entire world to a more complete state of fulfillment.

This sense of purpose is contagious. As we manifest it in our own lives, it spreads to others. And then the ripples grow wider, more and more of the world becomes involved, making Mashiach’s coming more than a dream of the future but a factor of immediate relevance in our lives.