What the world of business can teach us about repentance and renewal?

New Year: Time for Spiritual Accounting
What the world of business can teach us about our annual process of repentance and renewal.
Usually this column is devoted to taking messages from the world of Jewish tradition and applying them to the world of economic life. This New Year I want to go in the opposite direction, and see what the world of business can teach us about our annual process of repentance and renewal.

I can point to ancient precedents for this application. For example, the Zohar exhorts us to be accountants, mari dechushbana, and make a periodic accounting of our acts. Like accountants, we should make an ongoing accounting of our “credits and debits”, our good and bad deeds. But accountants go beyond making ongoing ledger entries; once a year they “close the books”, making a final accounting and summary of the year’s activity.

Likewise, as Rosh Hashanah approaches we should all make a careful evaluation of our deeds during the year 5765, and at what spiritual level they leave us. We should be careful to do our work carefully, as on Rosh Hashanah our books will undergo a thorough audit!

Another business practice universal among serious firms is the formulation of an annual budget. A person, like a business, has limited resources; our energy and attention may be great but they are not inexhaustible. Each of us can benefit from a clear definition of our “business objectives”, what we are trying to achieve personally in the coming year, and from translating these objectives into a more detailed plan of how we could use our energies more productively.

Although virtually every firm makes an annual budget, there are two different approaches. Many firms build each year’s budget on the basis of the previous year’s; the old budget is the benchmark, but modifications are made for changing circumstances. But every so often there is a need to build the budget from the ground up, to re-evaluate each expenditure item and completely reorient the business.

This too is a useful metaphor for our annual process of taking stock of the past and applying its lessons to the future during the High Holy Days. It’s only natural that we can’t reinvent ourselves each year, and so typically our resolutions involve token adjustments to the autopilot: perhaps to do more to control our anger, perhaps to devote a bit more time to helping others, and so on.

But every so often it’s desirable to rebuild our future from the ground up, to reflect on what we really want to achieve with our lives and how we should go about pursuing our goals. This doesn’t necessarily imply a revolution in our way of life; businesses and government which re-budget seldom completely transform their practices. Most of us have good reasons for our habits and way of life, and a thorough examination wouldn’t cause any disruptive changes.

But such an examination is still of immense value. A few people will decide that they have reached a critical juncture and need a thorough renewal of their way of life. Most of us will conclude that on the whole our conduct conforms to our values, but that there are still significant aspects of our lives which need reevaluation and change. We may discover that much of our conduct is never really subject to careful scrutiny, and plenty of our precious resources are squandered in activities of questionable value.

Even if we decide to continue just as we were, we will do so with renewed energy and motivation, armed with the awareness that our daily routine is not imposed on us by others or by habit, but rather is the outcome of a process of conscious choice.

Let’s make this the year we get ourselves off of ethical autopilot and take control of our lives, trying to make sure that every expenditure really conforms with our goals and values.

Shanah tovah.

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