So Nice We [Should] Do It Twice

Dr. Mordecai Kaplan, the great American Jewish educator and philosopher, reminded us that as Jews, we “live in two civilizations.” The Jewish and American civilizations are blessedly in harmony much of the time, with a few important distinctions in value system definitions or calendar. Both differences can be illustrated in the way a new year is celebrated in Judaism and American culture. This January 1, learn how to live the best of both worlds by melding the celebratory customs from American and Jewish cultures to improve your spiritual and physical life.

While both holidays signal a change of calendar, the differences between the Jewish Rosh Hashanah (new year, literally “head of the year”) and January 1 are clear. In American popular culture, the transition from one year to the next is often marked with parties, parades and fireworks, with fancy dinners at expensive restaurants and an abundance of alcohol everywhere. Rosh Hashanah boasts its share of enhanced meals with family and friends, though the overall joy and celebration is tempered by somber reflection on behavior and matters of life and death. But there is one similarity which is often ignored: the New Year’s resolution.

Rabbi Robyn Frisch writes on the Interfaith Family Network blog, “When I make my resolutions in the month of Elul, unlike in December, my resolutions aren’t about being thinner, healthier, wealthier and happier (not that I would mind any of those things). Instead, I make resolutions about how I will relate to my family, friends and community and how I will engage in the world. I contemplate not just my physical wellbeing, but more important, my spiritual wellbeing.” A wonderfully spiritual distinction, yet a tantalizing invitation to combine both types of resolutions. So, what’s holding us back from doing this?

According to the University of Scranton’s Journal of Clinical Psychology, only 8% of people who make New Year’s resolutions are successful in achieving their goals for the duration of the year. Typically, trending statistics reveal that as time passes, the percent of people holding fast to their resolutions becomes marginally smaller. For example, as the study suggests, approximately 75% of resolutions are kept within the first week, yet when hitting the six-month checkpoint, only 46% of resolutions remain intact. As Jewish demographics increasingly converge with general American demographics, and human behavioral frailty is less subject to shame, guilt or peer pressure, our resolve for both Rosh Hashanah teshuvah (life changing turning of behavior), and January resolutions for change fade with shorter periods of time.

Now that we are at January’s doorstep and six months past Rosh Hashanah, perhaps it is a good time to check in on our resolutions and reaffirm them in a way that gives us more of a chance to fulfil them.

Once you’ve settled on one or two good resolutions, here are five strategies that can help you turn them into reality.

  1. Keep a log (especially at the beginning).
  2. Stay focused on your actions, not your progress.
  3. Find a support network.
  4. Go on record.
  5. Give your resolution a little extra staying power by sharing it with others.

As Courtney Naliboff writes on, “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 (self-inventory or accounting of the soul) 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.”

Rabbi Elianna Yolkut suggests that instead of worrying about the numbers on a scale or the numbers in our bank accounts, we might ask some different questions:

  • Am I treating the physical vessel housing my soul in the holiest possible way? Our bodies are sacred, and we should treat them as such.
  • Have I spent my financial means with giving to others as much as receiving for myself? Nothing feeds the soul more than giving. It reminds us of our capacity to help and highlights our blessings.
  • The world is filled with more than we can take in, constant demands on our attention. Have I set aside time for sanctuary, quiet contemplation and sacred space?
  • Can I reach out to the holy, divine, by finding rituals that allow me to reach out – from lighting candles to daily meditation, from prayer to acts of loving kindness? Rituals are simply moments of connecting to ourselves, to one another and to God.
  • Do I own my time, or does it own me? Our loved ones are precious. Have I spent more time checking email than checking in on them?

As we had into 2018, consider how you might imbue your New Year’s resolutions with the wisdom and values of Jewish practice. Start your spiritual accounting this January 1, and mark your calendars for a six-month check-in over Rosh Hashanah.

Wishing you a very happy, healthy and fulfilling New Year, from all of us at The Jewish Federation!