On Jan. 1, many people wake up late in the morning to a splitting headache and a messy house. In the cold, sober light of day, they decide that in the upcoming year, they’re going to make some changes.
Making – and breaking – New Year’s resolutions has become as identifiable a holiday tradition as champagne flutes or the ball dropping in Times Square. But does this secular tradition extend to Jews, who already have their own New Year’s tradition in the fall that requires intense self-reflection?
Not especially, according to North Shore Jews and rabbis, who all say they prefer the High Holy Days to seek a better way.
“Being a good Jewish woman, I take the Jewish High Holy Days very seriously, because I think the text of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur kind of sets up the framework for your guidance on how you should be working with everything – religion, society, everything,” said Marion Garfinkel, a nurse from Swampscott.
“I’m more focused on teshuvah [repentance and self-examination that take place during the High Holy Days] which really engenders that – the secular New Year doesn’t really promote it in any way,” said Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead. “When you think about the attitude of a holy day versus a holiday – it’s because it doesn’t come easily. Spending an entire day of Yom Kippur to focus on this exact project is really what it takes. It can’t be done in Times Square while you’re watching the ball drop. It’s a day of festivity, which is wonderful, but it’s different than a day devoted to personal growth.”
Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody agrees. He does not keep any secular New Year’s resolutions because he believes that Judaism already lays out a more meaningful template for introspection during the High Holy Days.
“Let’s say I said something evil about you, and I’m truly sorry, and you might say ‘I forgive you’ – that’s not good enough. I have to truly mean it,” said Perlman, explaining how centuries of Jewish tradition help us improve our relations with ourselves and with others. “I can’t just say, ‘Thanks for accepting my apology.’ I have to think about, why did I do that? Why did I express lashon hara [malicious gossip]? What made me go out of my way to hurt another human being?’
“So I’m going to spend the next several days acknowledging that, then I’m going to say I’m sorry again, and this time when I say I’m sorry, I’m going to pound my chest, because I truly mean it. It not only hurt [the other person], it hurt me. Is that a resolution? I don’t think so. But it’s taking seriously what you meant.”
Many Jews noted that the gradual, contemplative path to right wrongs and try to become a better person is more meaningful than nonbinding resolutions we probably won’t keep.
“I don’t make resolutions anymore because I don’t want to break them,” said Nancy Baer, a retired saleswoman from Peabody. “If I make them and I don’t keep them, then I feel bad. I don’t make them, and I don’t feel bad.”
Mark Leavitt of Marblehead, who owns Salem Car Wash, agreed with Baer. “I think we’ve all not followed through. For many years, that gym membership or bike or treadmill for the house – for the first two or three months, you’re going at it a couple of times a week, and then it becomes a dust collector, so I’ve done that over the years,” said Leavitt.
“Setting goals is one thing – making a resolution or a vow is something else,” said Rabbi Meyer. “In general, I would say that Jewish wisdom discourages us from making vows – promises that we may not be able to keep, despite our best intentions. In fact, it’s very clear on Yom Kippur – the Kol Nidre … is really a message saying don’t make vows, don’t make resolutions. Because if you really think about it, a resolution is really a prediction. It’s a prediction that my current ideals, my current hopes at the present moment, will be realized in a future moment, so it’s really a prediction, but generally, and we know this, resolutions and vows don’t have a long half-life.”
Rabbi Robert Goldstein of Temple Emanuel in Andover pointed out that Judaism requires constant and consistent self-reflection, and that daily prayers and weekly Shabbat services provide that opportunity.
“My personal practice is I try to use the whole year long – when things come up is when I think about them, and try to do better, so the milestones for me are not triggers. I’m not a big milestones person – I’m more slowly plodding,” he said. “I think the whole notion in Judaism is you’re never complete, you’re never a finished product, there’s always a process. Life is an attempt to fulfill the mitzvahs, and to try the best you can.”