18 August 2020
By Rabbi Lia Bass
Every year, as we get to the month of Elul, I engage in heshbon hanefesh, the accounting of the soul, the moral stock-taking needed to reflect upon the past year. This is a powerful process. Taking stock of our actions and inactions can be a tool to examine our attitudes, prejudices, and shortcomings. This is the first step of the process of teshuvah, of repentance.
This year, I venture to say that we have all done more than out share of the introspection, reflection, and moral accounting that defines heshbon hanefesh. A pandemic and the social reckoning emerging from our nation finally confronting and engaging in a dialogue about racism, sexism, economic disparity, and climate change all serve as a clarion call for more action, for tikkun hanefesh. The word tikkun has many meanings that inform my spiritual preparation in this month of Elul. I would like to share these with you:
Tikkun as Correction of an Error – The history that brings us to this moment in our nation is one fraught with prejudice and inequity. For far too long, many individuals and groups have been perceived as “other,” because of the color of their skin, their faith, their gender, and/or their social and economic standing. Historically and morally, the “other” is inevitably seen—and treated—as less than human. Tikkun hanefesh offers us a path to correct these errors. But before we can act communally to correct our errors, we must acknowledge the occasions when we perceived people or groups as “other” and, in so doing, inflicted pain on them, even if our “othering” was unconscious or unintentional. In committing to tikkun hanefesh, we learn to remain spiritually vigilant about how we perceive and treat our fellow citizen, in order not to repeat the cycle of pain and oppression that “othering” entails. As a country we must no longer tolerate thoughts and actions that imperil others. Rather, we must engage in meaningful dialogue, participate in peaceful protests, and speak truth to power in challenging the abuses of the past and present. We must demand that every human being is seen as an individual created in the image of God, b’tselem Elohim.
Tikkun as Repair – Something has broken in the soul of our nation and our world such that we have been unable see the relatedness of racism, sexism, economic oppression, and exhaustion of natural resources. The arrival of COVID-19, a symbolic manifestation of this brokenness, has challenged our societal and personal myopia and called on us to hold ourselves and each other accountable for our part in the plight we find ourselves in. We had fallen into the habit of thinking in silos, this is to say, compartmentalizing our thinking in self-serving ways and narrowing our outrage to reflect our own pain or inconvenience. Tikkun hanefesh as repair is the process of enlarging the optics of our souls so that we can finally see the perilous issues we are facing—as a society and as individuals—and recognize our shared responsibility to fix what is broken: the racism, the inequity, the abuse of the environment, the corruption of those in power.
Tikkun as Reform – We have operated in this world with beliefs and codes of conduct derived from our personal and communal history, from the education we have received, and from the subtle lessons imprinted in our minds and our souls by the language we use and the information we have gathered from our own experiences. From an educational perspective, tikkun hanefesh as reform means that we must actively engage in making the necessary changes to the texts that educate us, demanding that they take into account the histories and experiences of all peoples. We must also scrutinize our communal and personal codes of conduct and revise, abolish, or create new ones that reflect a more just and equitable society for all, not just ourselves, our families, or our immediate communities.
Tikkun as Improvement – This understanding of the concept of tikkun expresses the idea that although we might feel that we have done enough, have grown in our understanding of and involvement in many causes, we can do better going forward. We can continue to grow, learn, and improve by truly listening to all who are oppressed and suffering injustice. Tikkun hanefesh as improvement is the process of examining, with discernment and compassion, our words and actions. In so doing, we are drawn ineluctably to apologize for the insensitive things we might have said, and to vow to be more vigilant of the words we use. We are drawn, too, to open our hearts to suggestions from others for ways to improve our language and attitudes to foster inclusivity and mutual acceptance. No group has a monopoly on pain. As we listen and share, and seek new ways to learn, we do our part to make changes in society and, ultimately, to heal the world.
Tikkun as Regulation – The work of tikkun is never done. Even after we go through every tikkun hanefesh that I have discussed here, we continue our work by vigorously insisting that the laws, rules, and directives created by our personal and communal efforts are maintained and upheld, so that every person has an equal opportunity to live a productive and creative life. Tikkun as regulation is the ultimate expression of the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon in the Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2, Mishnah 16): “You are not obligated to finish the whole task, and you are also not free to neglect it.” We must remain watchful not to rest on our laurels when we feel that we have made improvements. We must continually remind every society, every group, and every community in which we participate that there is always room for greater improvement and growth.
This year, in the month of Elul, I will engage wholeheartedly in tikkun hanefesh. I live in a broken, unredeemed world, and I wish to do my part to bring peace, love, and understanding to me, to my family, to my community, and to the universe. Every human being carries broken shards in their hearts, bodies, and souls. Our souls yearn for some form of tikkun. Building on the Hassidut teaching that there is nothing more whole than a broken heart, the great Jewish poet and composer, Leonard Cohen, taught us: “there is a crack, a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.” As we embark on the work of correcting, repairing, reforming, improving, and regulating our souls, we celebrate the cracks in our hearts that allow the light to get in. Let that light guide us as we journey forward into the new year with love and compassion for ourselves and others, into a future where we are stronger, kinder, more joyful and, especially, more whole. I invite you to join me in rolling up our sleeves and committing to the work ahead.