By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
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 for the coming year. The problem is that I have done it every year for many years and have never kept the commitment for more than a couple of months, tops. Is it better to make a resolution that gets broken, or perhaps better 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), and it’s important to understand the context in which we make those resolutions before deciding what to do.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mark the period known as the “Ten Days of Teshuvah” or repentance. This is the time that we reflect upon our actions and deeds in the past year, and attempt to make amends to God and our fellow man.
The teshuvah process consists of three parts: 1) Recognizing and feeling remorse over a past misdeed, 2) Accepting upon yourself never to repeat that misdeed in the future, 3) Confessing the misdeed to God and asking Him for forgiveness. When the misdeed affected another person, step one includes rectifying the wrong and attaining their forgiveness.
The Jewish concept of resolutions stems from part two. An element in the way we rectify our actions in the future is by committing to perform a positive act, which will ensure that we will not return to the misdeed. At times, we feel the need to elevate ourselves to a generally higher level of closeness to God, so we will commit to some mitzvah over the coming year that will affect us positively in all areas of our lives. It may be to accept refraining from a negative behavior or character trait as well.
Once we put the Jewish New Year’s resolutions into the context of teshuvah, we realize it’s not just a nice thing to do. Rather it’s an important part of the mitzvah we are commanded to perform at this time of the year.
In order to make it meaningful, I will suggest to you a paradigm shift in your conception of commitment. Your question suggests an oxymoron: a commitment you know you will break. Allow me to suggest that a commitment you know you will break is not a commitment at all. To commit and consistently not fulfill is a huge blow to your own personal integrity. You then develop a story about yourself that you don’t fulfill your commitments, not to yourself, not to God and not to others. This story about yourself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Consider making a commitment to something small, doable and significant. Make that commitment with integrity. This means that you decide if 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.
When you listen to the shofar blast, allow it to awaken the hidden greatness within you as a Jew and a human being. Actualize that greatness by making this coming year a great one in all that you do!
Best wishes for a New Year of growth, meaning and joy to you, the dedicated staff of the TJP and all the readers.
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.