By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Editor’s note: Rabbi Fried’s series of columns based on his conversation with Matisyahu will resume after the High Holy Days.
Dear Rabbi Fried,
With Rosh Hashanah approaching, I have a dilemma. I was always taught as a child that this is the time we make resolutions to be better Jews and people for the coming year. The problem is, I have done it every year for many years and have never kept most commitments for more than a couple months, tops. Is it better to make a resolution that gets broken or not to commit at all?
— Rochelle W.
It’s true that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the Jewish times for making resolutions (as opposed to Jan. 1). It’s important to understand the context and framework in which we make those resolutions before you decide what to do.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mark the period known as the “10 days of tshuvah” or repentance. This is the time that we reflect upon our thoughts, actions and deeds in the past year, and attempt to make amends to God and our fellow man.
The tshuvah process consists of three parts: 1) Recognizing and feeling remorse over a past misdeed; 2) Vowing never to repeat that misdeed in the future; 3) Asking God for forgiveness. When the misdeed affected another person, the first step includes rectifying the wrong and getting their forgiveness.
The Jewish concept of resolution stems from Part 2. Part of the way we rectify our actions is by committing to perform a positive act that will ensure we will not return to the misdeed. At times, we feel the need to elevate ourselves to a higher level of closeness to God, so we will commit to the performance of some mitzvah over the coming year that will affect us positively in all areas of our lives. It may also be refraining from a negative behavior or character trait.
Once we put the Jewish New Year’s resolutions into the context of tshuvah, we realize these pledges are not just a nice thing to do. Rather, they comprise an important part of the mitzvah of tshuvah, which we are commanded to perform at this time of the year.
To make it more meaningful, allow me to suggest a paradigm shift in your notion of commitment. Your question suggests an oxymoron — a “commitment” you know you will break. I suggest that this is not a commitment at all. To commit and consistently not fulfill is a huge blow to your personal integrity. You then develop a story about yourself that you are one who doesn’t fulfill your commitments to yourself, to God and I’m not sure to whom else.
Consider the suggestion from the Baalei Musar — Jewish masters of self-improvement: Make a commitment to something small, doable and significant. Make that commitment with honesty. This means that you decide your personal integrity depends upon that commitment.
Think ahead of ways to ensure the fulfillment of your resolution. Decide that even if you slip up once, it’s not over. Rather, clean it up and continue with the commitment the rest of the year. If you’re able to do that, you will exercise your “integrity muscles” and be a much stronger, prouder person for whom the sky is the limit for your potential growth and happiness. In this way, you will fulfill the mitzvah of tshuvah in the area you choose in a meaningful and gratifying way, one that will foster personal growth, pride and self esteem and create a more intimate relationship with the Al-mighty.
Best wishes to you and all the readers for a New Year of growth, meaning and joy. May God grant a year of peace for Israel, protection from her enemies from without, as well as peace among the Jewish people everywhere from within.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel, Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.