We have thus far covered most of the laws with regard to interpreting the
actions of people. The Gemara in Brachos discusses one final aspect of
this command; it acknowledges that there may be occasions where it is
completely impossible to judge even a righteous man favorably and one is
allowed to presume that he did indeed commit a sin. Nonetheless, the law
is that we must presume that he regretted his sin and did teshuva by the
next day (repented1 )2 .
How can we be so certain that this righteous man did teshuva so quickly?
The answer is found in a basic principle in the Torah’s attitude to
growth - that a person should be in a constant process of self-accounting
(cheshbon hanefesh), assessing his actions of the previous day. We can be
certain that a righteous person undergoes this daily self-accounting and
in this time of honestly analyzing his actions, will come to the
realization that he erred and do teshuva for his action.
This idea of cheshbon hanefesh can appear as quite a novel concept -
Western society does not place great emphasis on the importance of
analyzing one’s actions and character traits as a tool for self-
improvement. There is the concept of assessing one’s business results and
one’s financial situation, but in the realm of self-growth, this is a far
less familiar approach3 . It seems
likely that one of the primary causes of the high divorce rate is the
attitude that ’I’ am in the right, but the other person is wrong and
should be the one trying to improve ourselves. In contrast, the Torah
approach stresses that we should focus more on our own performance in the
relationship and less on that of our spouse.
The first stage of cheshbon hanefesh is to get to know oneself. This
involves developing a familiarity with ones character traits, both
positive and negative. Without such self-awareness a person cannot begin
to improve himself. A good way of doing this is writing a list of the
main character traits and assessing where one’s strengths and weaknesses
lie. Another tool to help us realize what area of growth we should focus
on is to note the areas of contention in one’s relationships. For
example, if the main point of contention in a marriage is that one has a
short temper, then it is likely that this is the most important area of
We have seen how cheshbon hanefesh is so engrained in Jewish thought to
the extent that we can be certain that a righteous person who erred will
assess his actions and do teshuva.
1 In truth, the word ‘repent’ is not an adequate translation
of the Hebrew word, ‘teshuva’ - a better translation is, ‘returning’ -
teshuva signifies that a person has ‘returned’ to Hashem after distancing
himself from Him through negative actions. 2 Brachos, 19a. 3 It is true that there are a number of self-help books that
sometimes contain aspects of self-assessment - however they are limited
and their motivation is often to enable someone to do better in business,
not necessarily to become a better person.