(RNS) If you’re Jewish, it’s the time of year to do some serious soul-searching.
On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year that begins at sundown on Wednesday (Sept. 24), Jews ask how they could have lived up to their better selves during the previous year, and for forgiveness from God and those they have wronged.
And while they’re not required to make New Year’s resolutions, a lot of Jews do anyway.
“Mine usually revolve around my mother,” said Debbie Sann, a Washington, D.C., mother of two. “I ask God to forgive me for not being a better daughter, and then I resolve to be a better daughter and I say I will call my mother at least once a week.”
Sann is typical of many Jews who make resolutions around Rosh Hashanah — nobody ever discussed the idea with her, or taught it to her in Hebrew school, but she started the practice because it just felt right. In her 20s, walking home from synagogue, she made her first resolution, and has been doing so ever since.
To some — and not always the most traditional of Jews — the practice seems a bit un-Jewish, a little too reminiscent of the quickly abandoned resolutions that spur couch potatoes to dig out their workout gear and join a gym in early January.
But like many Jews who make Rosh Hashanah resolutions, Sann also makes resolutions on Jan. 1. Those are different — she resolves to keep a more organized house, or to work harder. But the ones she makes during the Jewish High Holy Days “are about being a better person,” she said.
Similarly, Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, says his Jan. 1 resolutions — which often revolve around losing weight or actually taking his vacation days — are “trivial” compared to those he makes during the “Days of Awe,” which begin with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement.
“If I break the secular resolutions, in some ways I’m disappointing my understanding of myself,” he said. “If I break the High Holiday resolutions, I am disappointing my relationship with God, the commitments I make in God’s name, and I am disappointing my community.”
To understand why, he said, go to the portions of the Torah — the Hebrew Bible — that are read on the High Holy Days. On Yom Kippur, Jews learn how the Prophet Isaiah told the Israelites that they were not just to fast for its own sake, but to remind them to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. That, Gutow said, is the wellspring for his Jewish New Year resolutions.
“The message is not just to resolve to be better,” Gutow said, “but to be a better person in the world around us, and to work as hard as we can to take care of the people around us.”
There are Jews who are not moved to make Rosh Hashanah resolutions.
“I don’t know anybody who does this,” said Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union, one of the largest organizations of American Orthodox Jews.
For Weil, self-improvement efforts around the High Holy Days are rooted in what is known in Hebrew as “tshuvah,” or repentance. “It’s a reflective, introspective experience with hopes that the person will become a better Jew through tshuvah.” No need to call it a resolution.
“It’s just not our language, our terminology,” he said. “I wouldn’t try to make it fit.”
But even some of the most observant Jews are fine with resolution-making. Chabad, one of the largest organization of Hasidic, or traditionally minded Jews, several years ago created an online “Resolution Solution” for Rosh Hashanah. Type in your resolution, and Chabad.org will email you daily, weekly or monthly reminders of what you resolved.
Still, the term “resolution” can strike even less traditional Jews as somehow too secular-sounding. In her pre-Rosh Hashanah class at Adas Israel, a Conservative congregation in Washington, D.C., Betty Adler asked people to think about their “intentions” for 5775, the upcoming Jewish year.
A professional photographer and member of the congregation, Adler then sent her students out into nature, and asked them to photograph something that represents that intention.
Her husband, Mark Rosenberg, took a picture of a brown leaf that to him looked like an ear against a sea of green leaves, a reminder of his intention to be a better listener in the new Jewish year.
The class then posted the images onto the home screens of their smartphones, to help them recall their intentions every time they checked their email.
“People make these lighthearted resolutions to exercise more,” but these visual metaphors reflect a more substantial resolve, said Adler. “The whole point of Rosh Hashanah is to get right with your spiritual side.”
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said she doesn’t make resolutions on either Rosh Hashanah or the secular new year. Nor does she find any grounding for them in Jewish law.
That said, she wouldn’t put them down, either.
Since the High Holy Days demand an intense self-examination, it’s not surprising, she said, that Jews would fall back on secular language, like “resolutions,” to help them realize their aspirations.
“That’s in harmony with our highest values,” she said. “Anything that causes us to looks at ourselves and to resolve to be better people is a good thing.”