Self-knowledge is an vital Jewish value, and it's especially important to Yom Kippur. Cheshbon nefesh, the "accounting of the soul" requires an honest exploration of what we've done and who, deep down, we are. I explore two sides of cheshbon nefesh, using my own journey of learning I have autism as a case study in self-understanding.
Know Before Whom You Stand: You Stand Before Your Self
I entered the sanctuary and found a woman standing in front of the ark. “Can I help you?” I asked. “No, thank you,” she replied. “I’m here to meet someone.” “Who are you here to meet?” I asked. Gazing at the ark, she quietly replied, “Myself.”
The words inscribed above the ark in this little fable were the same as those on arks all over the world: da lifnei mi atah omed, “Know before whom you stand.” Maybe this is an allusion to praying in the presence of God. Maybe it’s synonymous with another famous inscription, the one carved above the entrance to Apollo’s temple at Delphi: “Know thyself.” Or maybe, as is usually the case, it’s both. “Know before whom you stand.” You stand before God; and you stand before you.
Our liturgy is poetry—was always meant to be poetry—and poetry never wants to be taken literally. Rabbi Noa Kushner reminds us that liturgy and our lives are in what she calls a “feedback loop;” the words have meaning only when seen in the context of our lives, and our lives take on new meaning when we encounter and express the words of our tradition. “Liturgy requires life,” she writes, “as life requires liturgy.”
And so we embrace the poetic journey of Yom Kippur. The pinnacle prayer, Un’taneh Tokef, says it most clearly: “Today is the day of judgment, for even the hosts of heaven are judged.” Even when we know that it’s theater, that the divine courtroom is a fantasy, we still feel “the power of this day, for it is awesome and full of dread.”
The actual power of the day comes from us who bring the prayers to life; and the day, in turn, empowers us to conduct its sacred work. Rabbi Kushner teaches, “We cannot read these words without addressing ourselves … because it is precisely in saying this very prayer that we ourselves are forced to remember everything we would [prefer to] forget.” Submission to divine authority is really a challenge to face ourselves, to cultivate enough humility to reckon with our deeds and to come face-to-face with who, deep down, we rally are.
This introspection on the High Holy Days is called cheshbon nefesh, “accounting of the self.” It has two aspects: First, we take stock of our deeds so that we can correct and improve them in the year ahead. And second, we take a long, hard look at who we really are simply for the sake of better knowing ourselves. “Know before whom you stand.” And in doing so, “Know thyself.”
I’d like to speak personally tonight, at least a little, on cheshbon nefesh. I’m generally pretty private, so this is hard for me. Still, I’ve recently had the unusual and important experience of learning something new about myself, and the process has felt both relevant and helpful to understanding the themes of Yom Kippur.
Two years ago, our son, Jeremiah, was diagnosed as “twice exceptional”—intellectually gifted and autistic. For years we’d described to friends and teachers Jeremiah’s bundle of habits and quirks: he has an astonishingly strong memory; he focuses intensely on his interests and has a hard time talking about anything else; he is powerfully and sometimes painfully honest. Also, it’s hard for him to know how others are feeling; he’s unlikely to offer an unprompted “hello” or “good-bye;” and even if he’s paying close attention to you, he might be walking around, humming to himself, or reading a book while you talk. When his many clusters of behaviors were formally identified as Autism Spectrum Disorder, none of us were surprised. Jeremiah himself was thrilled, and I share all this with his permission. His sister, to be honest, was a even bit jealous.
The past two years have been a journey of discovery for me and for our family. I’ve benefited greatly from podcasts, books, and personal conversations centering on being, raising, and teaching neurodiverse people. I’ve become more familiar as well with the stories of many individuals and families who face challenges far greater than ours even as I’ve allowed myself to feel more compassion toward our own family about our particular situation.
And something else has happened as well. The more attention I paid to Jeremiah over the past two years, the more I saw reflected glimpses of myself. The more I learned about autism, the more familiar that bundle of characteristics seemed. And the more I came to know adults—prizewinning authors, artists and musicians, members of my family and of this congregation—who led successful lives and who were also autistic, the more I became convinced that I was part of the club. So earlier this year, I signed up for a neurological evaluation; and about six months ago, I received my formal diagnosis. Twice exceptional. I’m gifted, and I also have autism.
To some of you, this will come as no surprise. You know me as a board game enthusiast who also has uncanny recall of the various sacrifices in the book of Leviticus. Perhaps you know I like to arrive exactly on time—neither early nor late—and that the words I use to express myself are often keenly precise. You might also know me as a person who finds it difficult to make small talk, who doesn’t follow well your non-verbal cues, or whose stories and—if I’m truthful—whose sermons might belabor a few too many details.
I know that some of you are autistic, too, or are otherwise neuro-atypical. Some of you have a lot of neurodiversity in your personal circles or in your work environment. In either case, adding your rabbi to the list may not be that big a deal. For others, the idea will take some getting used to. For me, it was something of a mixed bag. I can’t say I was surprised to be diagnosed as autistic—the same diagnosis that might once have been known as Asberger’s Syndrome. But even though I’m the same person, I now think about myself and the way I act in the world very differently than I used to. This has been a long journey of cheshbon nefesh, one that I’m still far from concluding.
I’ve suggested that cheshbon nefesh, “self-accounting,” has two sides: a practical side focused on our behavior and a non-practical side focused on our being. Let’s take a closer look at both, starting with the practical side.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin of Satanow literally wrote the book on cheshbon nefesh in the early 19th century. Lefin taught that cheshbon nefesh was an essential part of the basic human enterprise of self-improvement. His book was a major influence on the Lithuanian Rabbi Israel Salanter,  who founded the musar movement, a virtues-based approach to Jewish ethics and character development. Here’s a taste of the philosophy they shared: “The soul has health and sickness just as the body has health and sickness. The health of the soul is in its disposition, when you consistently do good things and pleasant acts with it; and the soul’s sickness is [also] in its disposition, when you consistently do bad things.” In other words, musar teaches that your character can be shaped through moral discipline; the better you act, the better you are.
It may surprise you as much as it surprised me to learn that Rabbi Lefin, who wrote the book on cheshbon nefesh, was significantly influenced by another writer we’ve all heard of: a Pennsylvanian inventor and eccentric diplomat named Benjamin Franklin, whose work Lefin encountered on his tour of Western Europe and from whose writing he drew extensively when drafting his own books in Hebrew. Franklin’s philosophy was that one’s character could be shaped through moral discipline and refinement. Take this reflection from Franklin’s autobiography, which introduces his famous thirteen virtues:
I wished to live without committing any fault at any time…. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. … I concluded, at length, … that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct.
In other words, Franklin and Lefin and Salanter all believed that we can refine our internal qualities in order to make ourselves better people. To succeed, we need to know as much about ourselves as we can so that we can improve. Each of us has a unique balance of strengths and weaknesses, of internal motivations and desires—and the more thorough and honest our “accounting of the self,” the better work we can do to live up to our own ideals.
The reality is, though, that none of us can fully reach our ideals. Ben Franklin was a great guy, but there’s no way that he—or anyone—could succeed at living “without committing any fault at any time.” This is because the conscious mind, the part of our self we call our self, is only a small piece of the unimaginably complex system organized and controlled by our marvelous brains. The neuroscientist David Eagleman summarizes the biological truth: “We are not at the center of ourselves.” Instead, our brains direct most of our behaviors non-consciously, in a series of competing and overlapping neurological systems. The conscious mind guides and influences these non-conscious processes; but in a lot of ways, our biology evades or even betrays our conscious will.
So this brings us to the other side of cheshbon nefesh. Knowing more about ourselves can’t only be about changing our behavior because some of our behaviors simply can’t be changed. Instead, there is a real and meaningful value to self-understanding beyond the realm of morals and ethics. This is knowledge of the self for its own sake, akin to the ancient Jewish value of Torah lishmah—study for the sake of study. To seek to know ourselves more fully isn’t narcissism; in fact, it’s the opposite. Genuine cheshbon nefesh leaves us bare, exposed to the internal eye and challenged to accept every aspect of our selves as true.
Benjamin Franklin wasn’t the only 18th-century philosopher to write an autobiography; Jean Jacques Rousseau, who some consider to have invented the modern form of the genre, takes a very different approach with his. Rousseau’s autobiography, Confessions, opens with a statement of purpose that sounds like cheshbon nefesh on public display. He writes:
I mean to present my fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature; and this man shall be myself. … Such as I was, I have declared myself; sometimes vile and despicable, at others, virtuous, generous and sublime; even as thou hast read my inmost soul: Power eternal! assemble round thy throne an innumerable throng of my fellow-mortals, let them listen to my confessions, let them blush at my depravity, let them tremble at my sufferings; let each in his turn expose with equal sincerity the failings, the wanderings of his heart, and, if he dare, aver, I was better than that man.
Rousseau may as well be reciting from the machzor. We say in Un’taneh Tokef that the Book of Remembrances bears the signature of every human being, and what is written there proclaims itself before the divine judge.
Rousseau’s confession is not intended for moral improvement. Rather, it is a study in human life, one he calls us all to undertake. And it represents the non-practical side of cheshbon nefesh, the personal—perhaps even the spiritual—enterprise of knowing who we are simply because it is good to know who we are.
Two approaches to the accounting of the soul, one practical and one decidedly not, both part of my own journey over the past year. Learning of my autism has helped me better achieve my own ethical goals; and it’s also helped explain my nature, which will not change. To illustrate the lesson, I’ll offer one more personal story.
A few years ago, a congregant summoned the strength to share how sad and angry she was about a recent insult I had caused her. She told me she’d made eye contact with me before Shabbat services and said hello, and then I turned my back on her and walked away. She was hurt, naturally, and wanted to know why I had been so rude. I told her, truthfully, that I had no memory of the encounter. As far as I could recall, I really didn’t see her. I didn’t turn away from her at all; I simply turned, not noticing she was there.
It brought this congregant some relief to know I hadn’t intended to hurt her, though I suspect it was cold comfort because no one likes to be overlooked. Still, she and I both knew that I owed her an apology, and I gave one sincerely. I apologized because I hurt her, and I also made an internal promise to try to avoid repeating this mistake with anyone else. The injury was addressed and, as well as could be expected and as far as I know, it was healed. We made peace with one another, and I believe I emerged a better person.
What I know now that I didn’t know then is how common this sort of thing is for people with autism. It’s common to overlook someone who might ordinarily be seen, and it’s also common to seize on the truth of the matter without defensiveness or guile. My autistic brain contributed both to my initial insult and also to my readiness to apologize and make it right.
Ultimately, knowing I have autism has been important on two fronts.
On the one hand, it gives me special impetus to pay attention to my behavior: to routinely remind myself, for instance, to uncross my arms, to make eye contact, to stop and say hi—in short, to make extra effort to notice the people around me. Knowing my diagnosis helps me see the ways I can better line up my actions with my values of caring about the people I’m with.
On the other hand, knowing I have autism helps simply to understand my behavior and more fully appreciate the person I am. Sometimes, I’m going to miss you or mistake your meaning, and sometimes I’ll delight you with a quick wit or a recalled fact. I might not be great at chatting after services; but if you email me a question, you can expect a quick and thorough reply. The way I think is different than a lot of other people, and knowing this—not just your knowing it but my knowing it—can help generate more compassion and even excitement. But most of all, in my experience, it’s simply nice to know.
Self-understanding is a vital part of Yom Kippur. And even though we stand in judgment, we also deserve mercy from ourselves. The Hebrew poet Esther Raab expresses radical self-acceptance in this passage from her autobiography:
I embrace my head and feel its bone structure; a lovely skull, shapely, graceful bones. My dear head! You who bestowed me with so many thoughts, who attached wings to my spirit - how beautiful and precious to me you are - I enclose you in both my palms and am proud of you - you have produced something in me along the stretch of road named life.
May our quest for self-knowledge bring us the same measure of gratitude and joy. May we stand with “reverence and intention” before the one who hears prayer as we render honest and compassionate judgment on ourselves. May this be a new year of deeper awareness of ourselves, and may this knowledge lead us to a more settled sense of our place in the world.
G’mar chatimah tovah. May you be sealed for blessing in the Book of Life.
 “From Text to Life to Text: The Un’taneh Tokef Feedback Loop” in Who By Fire: Un’taneh Tokef, ed. Lawrence Hoffman (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013), p. 63.
 Ibid. p. 65-66.
 See Immanuel Etkes’s Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth (Jewish Publication Society, 1993), pp. 123-134. In sum, “Salanter’s thought was decisively influenced by the psychological theories that Lefin incorporated in Sefer heshbon ha-nefesh” (126).
 This brief summary of musar is taken from the subheading of Greg Marcus’s “What is Mussar?” at MyJewishLearning: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-musar-movement.
 Introduction to Israel Salanter's Or Yisrael.
יֵשׁ לַנֶּפֶשׁ בְּרִיאוּת וָחֹלִי כְּמוֹ שֶׁיֵּשׁ לַגּוּף בְּרִיאוּת וְחֹלִי, וּבְרִיאוּת הַנֶּפֶשׁ הוּא שֶׁתִּהְיֶה תְּכוּנָתָהּ כוּ', שֶׁתַּעֲשֶׂה בָּהּ תָּדִיר הַטּוֹבוֹת וְהַפְּעֻלּוֹת הַנְּאוֹתוֹת, וְחָלְיָהּ הוּא שֶׁתִּהְיֶה תְּכוּנָתָהּ כוּ', שֶׁתַּעֲשֶׂה בָּהֶן תָּדִיר הָרָעוֹת וְהַפְּעֻלּוֹת הַמְגֻנּוֹת כוּ'.
 Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (p. 85-86). Available online: https://archive.org/details/autobiobenfran00miffrich/page/n131/mode/2up. “It was about this time I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employ'd in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was some times too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct.” This is the introduction to his famous 13 virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.
 Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Pantheon Books, 2011: New York), p. 18-19.
 Leo Damrosch, whose Great Courses lecture called “Enlightenment Invention of the Modern Self” (available online) was a major influence on this sermon, teaches that Rousseau “created the genre of introspective autobiography” (as it says in the description of his biography of Rousseau).
 Text taken from Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3913/3913-h/3913-h.htm. This 1903 translation is unattributed but may have been undertaken by Samuel William Orson.
 Esther Raab, Gan she-harav (A Garden in Ruins) (Tel AvivL Tarmil, 1983), p. 408, trans. Tamar Hess in Self As Nation : Contemporary Hebrew Autobiography (2016).
 This is Rashi’s understanding of how one should fulfill the concept of “Know before whom you stand.” כדי שתתפללו ביראה ובכוונה, comment at BT Berachot 28b.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”