The gym at our tiny YMCA in North Haven, Maine is packed every January with enthusiastic exercisers motivated by their New Year’s resolutions. The herd thins by February, and by March only the stalwarts remain.
New Year's resolutions grow out of a desire to identify areas of needed self-improvement and to take remedial action in the coming year. Nearly half of Americans make such resolutions, but according to a 2013 column in Forbes, only 8% actualize their resolutions. One major reason cited in the column is people’s tendency to set overly ambitious goals.
Do not despair. Judaism offers a path to help us make the changes in ourselves we desire.
Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish new year, which is observed in the fall, is a time not only for prayer and dipping apples in honey, but also a major opportunity to acknowledge and let go of the personal habits that prevent us from being the persons we hope to be.
A good way to begin is to do a self-audit or chesbon hanefesh (an accounting of the soul). This ethical program of self-improvement, conceived by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin (1749-1826), provides a framework for identifying 13 attributes: equanimity, patience, order, decisiveness, cleanliness, humility, righteousness, frugality, diligence, silence, calmness, truth, and separation.
To break habits that hold you back from the wholeness you seek, Rabbi Lefin recommends focusing on just one attribute at a time for a week, and then cycling through all 13 attributes four times throughout the year. The intent is to notice, without judgment, the ways in which we either overcome or succumb to our shortcomings.
The time between Rosh HaShanah and the secular New Year is just about one full 13-week cycle, making it an ideal opportunity to check in with the observation process and rededicate oneself to the next three cycles. Maybe you've noticed a new place in which you are held back from personal progress and wish to revise your list, or perhaps you notice the ease with which you are meeting your ideal for a particular attribute.
On Rosh HaShanah, Jews traditionally throw pieces of bread into the water as a symbolic gesture of casting away our sins. The first of January can be a time to see which sins have have stayed away and which returned from their watery grave.
Looking outward, at New Year’s, we can also affirm our dedication to tzedakah (righteous deeds) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). Fighting injustice can be just as healing and comforting as healing oneself. Actions as simple as regularly calling or emailing elected officials to express opinions, or as complicated as running for office, can all be rooted in the ritual of the changing year.
The shared excitement of secular New Year's Eve - the countdown, the champagne, the kisses – gives the date a sparkle that the Jewish New Year may lack. But the self-reflective and non-judgmental nature of a Rosh HaShanah cheshbon hanefesh gives it a leg up in the personal growth department. Taken together, we have a unique opportunity for a true soul accounting with a built-in check up, and the impetus for making our world more whole as well.
Two New Year opportunities can help us overcome the inertia that often confounds our best intentions to chart a new path for ourselves.