In many ways the Jewish New Year and secular New Year are similar. Both traditionally involve gathering with friends, eating and drinking, reflecting and making resolutions for what we hope to do better in the year ahead. But there's a difference. Ten days after Rosh Hashanah comes Yom Kippur, a holiday that offers a second chance for conscious reflection. By Jan. 10, on the other hand, most of us are well into the New Year and may have already broken a resolution or two.
Imagine, though, if we didn't see New Year celebrations as once-a-year opportunities, and instead we built in time for self-reflection year-round. Playwright George Barnard Shaw may have been thinking this way when he observed, "the only man who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them."
Judaism, like a good tailor, prompts us to retake our measurements. It asks us to be thoughtful. It reminds us that although we carry our past with us -- memories, regrets, joys -- what matters most is who we are today and who we seek to be tomorrow.
While it is difficult to observe day-to-day changes in ourselves and in those closest to us, it is possible. But it requires focus. It's through such awareness that we grow and lessen the possibility of living a life burdened with regrets. Awareness calls on us to celebrate small successes and note where we want to improve. It's about looking at the past not as a snapshot, but as through a prism. As we take in the many facets of our immediate and distant past, we can begin to recognize patterns and trends. We can see where we fall short and perhaps let go of behaviors that prevent us from moving forward. And we can appreciate the richness of our journeys.
This is not easy work, but Rosh Hashanah and Jan. 1 remind us this is important work -- important enough to do more than once a year. Because we don't make resolutions just to achieve or break them -- we make resolutions to acknowledge reality. So, when we are disappointed in ourselves we need to do more than say oy vay, which would only be disempowering. Instead, we should recognize where we are and seek to make things right. Hopefully we can forgive ourselves along the way, and believe we can behave differently in the future than we have in the past.
This may sound like painful and difficult work; indeed, it is not easy. But self-reflection is not a prescription for self-recrimination. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to be kind, to say, "I am capable of seeing the past and deciding to be different in the future. I can give myself a second chance."
Yom Kippur, a day that comes 10 days into the Jewish New Year, is known as the Day of Repentance. The ancient rabbis said that you know you've repented when after messing up once, you find yourself in a similar situation but act differently. They recognized the human potential to notice patterns and then work to break them.
Judaism is realistic. It says mistakes are OK. Mistakes are expected. They are part of being human. If we are not making mistakes, we are not pushing ourselves hard enough. So, my suggestion for all of us between now and 2014 is to go out and make mistakes! Yes, screw up! But here's the catch: Let's try to make new mistakes. And each time we mess up, let's consider what we can do differently next time. This is repentance. This is making the most out of 2013. Happy New Year!