Taking a personal inventory, as we're called to do during the month of Elul, is difficult. It takes courage to undergo the true self-examination that the season calls for, to honestly examine our faults and our strengths, and determine what are our potential areas for growth in the year ahead.
When I consider inventory, however, I think back to my college years. For all four years of college, I worked at the campus bookstore in a variety of roles, including as a cashier and as a member of the "trade" book department (where you would find any non-textbooks that we stocked; since we were owned by Barnes and Noble, this section was pretty extensive). Once a year, we would conduct a store-wide inventory. While much of the counting was done by an outside firm, the store employees would be present to answer any questions, and to count the books themselves.
As a college student, I of course appreciated the chance to be paid time-and-a-half (and have lunch and dinner provided by my employer) without having to face any customers all day. But I also enjoyed having the time to spend with my co-workers. They were a diverse group, very different from the people with whom I otherwise socialized.
My direct supervisor was a Vietnam veteran who spoke openly of his struggles with PTSD. Another colleague, an older woman, was a recent refugee from Yugoslavia who taught us of the conflict in her country well before most Americans had heard of it. An African-American young man who lived in the projects in the heart of Chicago told us of his difficult home life. A fellow cashier talked passionately about her involvement in her evangelical church, and I explained key tenets of Judaism to those who were interested. These conversations opened my eyes and broadened my horizons.
Maybe that's what these inventory experiences have in common: if we enter such endeavors with our eyes, ears, and hearts open, we gain new understandings of ourselves and others. This is how we grow.