As we enter the season of the Jewish New Year, resolutions are on the mind of many.
How many times have you heard someone lament, “I really must diet, and I did, but it isn’t sticking!” Or “I’ve quit smoking a million times, but just when I think I’ve mastered it, I find myself again with a cigarette in my mouth.” This is true in the spiritual realm as well: “This year I am going to pray more, study more, attend Jewish activities more,” and then, late October is here and I am back to where I was before the holidays?
What is it about commitments that just doesn’t seem to work? Are we doing something wrong? Is it the manner in which we are saying it? Are we saying the wrong thing? Or perhaps we are simply reaching too high and thus we cannot reach our goal?
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There is a verse in Leviticus 20:26, which roughly translates as, “You shall be holy for me, because I am holy, and I will separate you from amongst the nations …”
Rashi comments on this as a fascinating concept that Jewish mysticism seizes upon for a very powerful life lesson.
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says, “From where do we know that a person should not say, ‘I am disgusted by this pig meat, [or] I am unable to wear kilayim [forbidden clothing hybrids, such as wool and linen],” rather what should a person say, ‘I want it, but what should I do that my Father in heaven decreed [that I shouldn’t do this] …’”
Here, Rashi introduces not only a general guide to how to distinguish yourself as uniquely part of G-d’s people, but in my humble interpretation, he is giving a magical secret about the psychology of the human condition that can serve to teach us how to make and keep our commitments.
He is saying, the correct approach to fulfilling G-d’s wishes, is not to say that “I hate evil,” rather, call it for what it is. Say, “I want it, but what can I do, my Father in heaven forbids it.”
Now you might say, what’s the difference? These are just semantics. I will make a case that in fact, this is the entire difference between success and failure in virtually any undertaking a person endeavors to achieve.
Recently during a summer family trip, we went to a lake where according to the website, there was a “short hike” to the water. Cars needed to be parked outside the reservation.
Thinking nothing of it, we loaded up the kids, the youngest being two, and grabbed our beach chairs and snack bags, and headed out. A pre-walk family meeting went something like this:
“OK, there is a short walk and then a beautiful lake where we can swim and have fun. This is going to be easy and great. Let’s go!”
Twenty minutes later, the short walk wasn’t feeling so short for everyone. At 30 minutes we had a crying and complaining, very unhappy bunch! Eventually we did reach the destination and it was glorious, beautiful and refreshing.
Ironically, the way back, once everyone knew already what we were getting into, the hike went a whole lot easier with virtually no complaining.
Reflecting on what happened and utilizing the tools of the teaching above, a more successful approach would have been to tell the family, “This is going to be tough for some of you, but the website says that it is less than a mile. So while some of you may find this difficult, you can do it. We believe in you. We will help you. All that’s left is for you to believe in yourself.”
In other words, by telling them (a lie) this is easy, we set them up for failure. If we had said (the truth) this is hard, but you can do it, they’d have been more prepared for the challenge, but that would have also helped them be successful.
The same is true of dieting. If you say, “I hate sugar and carbs,” you will be strong perhaps – for a bit, but then you will eventually bump into my wife’s chocolate chip cookies, and your resolve will crumble just like the cookies that used to be on the counter.
If, however, you say, “I love sugar, and I love carbs, and I love chocolate chip cookies, but I am overweight, I have high diabetes, as much as I love it, and I really do love it, it is bad for me, so I will restrain myself from indulging in it,” it might be a more difficult way of approaching it, but you are much more likely to see success.
And this is true of the spiritual journey as well. Rather than say, “I love going to Shul (particularly on random Tuesdays),” and “I love studying,” or “I hate sinning” and “I don’t have temptations,” instead, say, “I don’t necessarily love what is good for me, and I often do love what is bad for me, and that’s OK. I am not resisting what I want because I hate it, I am resisting it because I am conscious that it not what our Father in heaven wants for me.” Meaning it is not good for me, be it spiritually or physically.
If you call it for what it is, you are far more likely to succeed.
This is the secret to making New Year’s resolutions that actually stick. Don’t be dishonest about your connection to the resolution. Call it for what it is. Admit that it will be hard. Just tell yourself that truth, that as hard as this is, I can do it.
You know why, because Gd tells you that He is right there helping you. Be holy, for I am holy, and I will separate you from among the nations. Meaning, if you commit to being your better self, as hard as it is, I will help you.
Happy Resolutioning! Shanah Tova.
Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman is the spiritual leader of the Chabad of Peabody Jewish Center.