Minister’s Forum: Jewish thoughts on the new year
The New Year in our American calendar seems to be dominated by a forward-looking culture that gets expressed through resolutions. Resolutions feed our desires for self-improvement with a minimum of difficult self-reflection. After all, most of us more often make resolutions with regard to diet and exercise, and seldom with regard to personal behavior.
Jewish teachings ask us to approach the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which usually occurs in September, in a different fashion, turning towards the past as something that must be smoothed before we can make any progress into the future. This practice is called, in Hebrew, teshuvah, or “returning,” or “repentance.” The wisdom in this appears in the habit of returning to everyone in one’s life and cleaning the slate, apologizing for wrongdoings – both those one remembers and those forgotten – so that one can enter the new year without any baggage from the previous year. This literal “return” to past actions with a new understanding about them, allows us to shed them as problems in our lives.
I have often found the practice of resolving to make some drastic change in my life through the New Year more of a burden than an asset. And yet, while the Jewish New Year requires a good deal of personal effort to reconcile issues of the past, it often sends us into the next year with fewer burdens. In fact, one of the central teachings of the Jewish New Year offers us the opportunity to relieve ourselves of the promises that we have imposed on ourselves in the past year which have gone unfulfilled.
This consists of a full reversal of the practice of resolutions; instead of loading down our coming year with new obligations, on top of those yet unfulfilled, we rid ourselves of those that have gone unfulfilled from the past. This focus asks us to think of our own behavior and how to improve it in ways that go beyond losing a few pounds, exercising more, and stopping smoking. While all of these would be laudable, they pale when compared to the effects on our lives when we resolve problems between ourselves and those around us.
On that note, I would like to offer my own gratitude, and that of the entire Jewish community of Temple Bat Yam, to everyone in South Lake Tahoe who took time and effort to condemn the anti-Jewish and Nazi graffiti that appeared in town and on the Temple building a few weeks ago. I enter the new year most thankful that we all share one of the best places in the world to live – we are all the best neighbors!
Happy New Year!
-Jonathan B. Freirich is the rabbi at Temple Bat Yam.