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Let this be the year

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The volume of Google searches for the word “diet” increases exponentially on – yes, you’ve guessed correctly – 1 January. During the first two weeks of the secular year, you’ll struggle to find parking at the local gym. Fear not, the run on the treadmills will soon end as the resolve of the amazing but often unrealistic New Year’s resolutions start to melt away. Within days, search engines will be used to look up calorie-laden recipes and the queues for fitness equipment at the sports club will disappear.

For spiritual and religious pledges, the red-letter day is of course 1 Tishrei. On Rosh Hashanah, we take a good and deep look at who we are, what we do, and how we relate to others and to G-d. We firmly resolve to improve in every area of our lives. We want to become better spouses, parents, children, employers, employees, friends. We commit to act kinder, to speak nicer, and even wish we could control our innermost thoughts and impulses. We want to become more connected to our Maker, and wish to pray more often and more meaningfully, to perform more mitzvot more regularly.

In truth, we cannot compare the energy of the two dates. New Year’s Day is nothing more than a random date on the calendar. Yes, the diary pages are blank and there’s the promise of freshness and renewal. For that reason, it’s a propitious time to commit to change and improvement. But it’s also a day many spend nursing a hangover following the excesses of the previous night.

Rosh Hashanah is a day filled with spiritual energy. The name says it all – head of the year – not just another arbitrary day. As the brain is the seat of the highest and most crucial forms of human functioning, this day is metaphysically connected with the rest of the year. It’s not only the day when we renew our commitment and connection with the One Above. It’s also the anniversary of the world’s creation, and the day on which G-d renews His contract with the universe. Not only is it an appropriate day for introspection and resolution, it’s an auspicious day to do so successfully.

However, it cannot be said that Rosh Hashanah commitments will automatically carry more effectively than those made on 1 January.

In Deuteronomy (11,12), the annual cycle is described as “from the beginning of the year until the end of a year”. Grammatically, this is awkward, with an inconsistent use of the definite article. “Beginning of the year to end of the year” seems more correct, as would be “beginning of a year to end of a year”. The dissonance actually carries a powerful message. Each of us, at the beginning of a year, resolves firmly, “This will be the year, different from all previous ones, when I will realise my full potential and implement real change”. Twelve months later, as we reach the end of the year, the definite article is dropped, and we sadly have to accept it was just “a year”.

How do we make sure that the powerful energy of the high holidays doesn’t go up in smoke soon after the end-of-Yom-Kippur shofar blast?

Here are a few practical suggestions, most of which work just as well for diets and fitness plans:

Resolutions must be specific. Vague commitments, such as “This year will be better than last” or “I’m going to be a better person” are unlikely to stick. Concrete undertakings, like “I’ll attend shul once a week”; “I’ll be home for work no later than 18:00”; “I’ll no longer use my cellphone while driving my kids to/from school”, have a far higher chance of success.

Aim for achievable objectives. Going from 0 to 120 in the course of one Unetane Tokef isn’t possible, as moving as the chazan may have been. Changing from total shul absenteeism to attending shacharit and mincha/maariv seven days a week isn’t sustainable. It will also be less daunting to make a time-capped resolution – being good forever is so scary.

Finally, follow the Talmudic advice, “Accept upon yourself a teacher and acquire a friend,” (Ethics of the Fathers 1,6). Change is easier and more lasting with a mentor who can guide and advise, tell you what’s realistic and what’s not, and what your next steps should be. This person will also be able to monitor progress, and if you are open to this, gently remind, prod, and nag as necessary. A good friend can also be your buddy along this road – less threatening and daunting than an authority figure, yet impartial enough to be honest and open with you.

Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch (1860-1920) was travelling through Italy. While waiting at a train station, he observed a brand-new powerful locomotive being prepared for a journey. There was much activity around the mighty machine – people running to and fro, shouting instructions, shovelling coal, planning and executing. After much preparation, the engine was ready to go. With waving flags and the sound of a whistle, the station master instructed the driver to leave the platform. The horn blew, a huge puff of steam was let out, and the locomotive slowly made its way down the tracks, leaving behind the entire train. Nobody had remembered to couple the wagons! Upon his return to Russia, Rabbi Sholom Ber related the story to the chassidim. The moral was obvious.

The head of our year is that powerful steam engine. Our challenge is to hitch the rest of the year to the head.

Shana tova, and let this be the year.

  • Rabbi Yossi Chaikin is the rabbi at Oxford Shul, and the chairperson of the South African Rabbinical Association.

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