Monday, January 1, 2024

New Year's Resolutions, Jewish Style (Substack)


New Year's Resolutions, Jewish Style

At a time when antisemitism is rampant, we need to be reminded about what is beautiful and good about Jewish traditions. Cultivate a signature Mitzvah. For Jews, practice makes purpose

Above: PJ LIbrary Mitzvah checklist. Click here for enlarged pdf

On the surface, there would seem to be very little that the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the secular new year have in common. For one thing, New Year’s Day occurs on January 1, and Rosh Hashanah occurs typically in September. In truth, because of a tiny glitch in the calculations of the ancient rabbis, the Jewish calendar is shifting ever so slowly, so Rosh Hashanah will, in fact, occur on January 1 - in the secular year 22,203, which corresponds to the Jewish year 25,963. That year, we’ll get two New Years for the price of one! Which will be very convenient for anyone who might celebrate a little too much the night before and need to repent the next day. I can just see the big apple in Times Square being dropped into a big vat of honey! It will be spectacular.

But until that happens, there is one other thing that the two celebrations share, and that is the idea of New Year’s Resolutions. Jews call it “Teshuvah,” which many translate as “repentance,” but actually means a reaffirmation of and return to deeply-held and rock solid values. “Resolve” is similar, connoting a stick-to-it-iveness, steadfastness and perseverance. All of there affirm the wisdom of the past even as they promote new visions for the future. A verse from Lamentations (5:21) perfectly summarizes this sense of looking ahead by looking back:

הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ יְהֹוָ֤ה ׀ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ (ונשוב) [וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה] חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם׃

Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself,
And let us come back;
Renew our days as of old!

So, practically speaking, how do Jews choose their resolutions? Whether by looking at the bathroom scale or the scales of justice, it always comes back to mitzvot.

As we approach this new year, let’s pick a signature mitzvah.

Back in 2009, the world was reeling from the financial meltdown and for the Jewish community especially, the Madoff scandal took an enormous financial and emotional toll. Knowing that from crisis emerges opportunity, on the High Holidays I proposed a reset - and a chance to reimagine the meaning and role of mitzvah in our lives. 

In that sermon I suggested that everyone choose a "signature mitzvah" to work on over the holidays, and beyond. 

You can listen to the sermon (and read more of it) here

The same is true today. At a time when antisemitism is rampant, Jews (and not just young Jews) need to be reminded about what is beautiful and kind and good about our traditions. At a time of deep uncertainly, we need to grab hold of ways to make the world better, one mitzvah at a time.

So what’s your mitzvah? Everyone has a signature mitzvah, a mitzvah that defines us. 

I teach children, therefore I am. 

I feed the hungry, therefore I am.  

I take people to Israel, therefore I am.  

Our signature mitzvah becomes our immortality. Our legacy. Our footprint in the sand. It is, to quote Julia Child, when talking about cooking, “what I dooo.” 

There is a midrash that when a person is asked in the world to come, “What was your work?” and they answer, “I fed the hungry,” that person will be told, “This is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry. The same goes for those who reply that they raised orphans, performed acts of tzedakkah, clothed the naked and embraced acts of lovingkindness (Midrash Psalms 118:17).” 

So what will you say when you reach paradise? What will your descendants be saying about you? What do you dooo?”

Once you discover your signature mitzvah, the key is to take that mitzvah, to live it with all your soul and all your might – and to share it. 

Think about it: There are, according to Maimonides’ count, 613 mitzvot in the TorahSome of those mitzvot are no longer in play and others are only meant to be observed in Israel – but we should click on that list and pick one. Or better yet, more than one. We do many mitzvot, after all, and often without knowing it.

So what will your mitzvah be?

To attend morning minyan? To make your community greener? To read Torah or to tutor? Or maybe to coordinate letter writing for Israel? Maybe to run a support group for those who struggle with addiction. 

There are a number of mitzvah heroes that I know. One is helping with job networking, and another with food drives. One is paying anonymously for a famous scholar to teach a series on prayer, and another visits people in the hospital in a clown costume. One student is teaching Adon Olam to a bunch of schoolchildren in India and one is serving up vitamins to Ethiopian kids in Netanya. 

As a rabbi, I consider myself somewhat of a general practitioner, but I’ve also got more than a few signature mitzvot.

One that I embrace is the one listed as #16 on Maimonides’ list of 613; it is a mitzvah for everyone to write a Torah for himself. I see my own writing in that light, as an attempt to bring the Torah to life through the prism of my own experiences. I also like #28, not to harm anyone in speech, though it’s hard and I often fall short. And there’s #39, to care for animals, and the 150’s, which all deal with aspects of Kashrut. And then there’s the 170’s, which all deal in business ethics. I care about those. 

And one more signature mitzvah: #53. Love the stranger. The Torah repeatedly commands us to love the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt. Often, this refers to the Ger Tzedek – the convert. And indeed, we make it our business here to make the process of becoming a Jew by Choice one of tremendous spiritual growth. But there is another type of stranger found in our sources – the Ger Toshav – the person who, while not taking on Judaism as a faith, has elected for whatever reason to reside in our midst, and who, often with a Jewish spouse, has chosen to participate in this grand experiment called Jewish destiny. 

Attend a minyan and maybe try on tefillin – that’s #20. If you return a lost item, you’re doing a mitzvah – # 276. So if someone lent you something years ago and you just came across it, but you weren’t really sure what to do – return it!  If you have one of my books, for instance, I’m declaring an amnesty period for the next five months. No questions asked. 

If you care for an animal, you’re doing a mitzvah. So adopt a dog and name it mitzvah. Throw a yarmulke on it and have a bark mitzvah…. If you’ve been carrying a grudge, end it. #32.  If you’ve been gossiping, stop it (#28); if you are known for angry outbursts (and who isn’t these days!), cool it – #30. If you’ve given tzedakkah, give more – #52. If you’ve never performed a bris… …maybe hold off on that one… but it’s #17.  

Find a mitzvah, do it and do it on behalf of all of us.

Many of the 613 mitzvot are obscure, some have become obsolete, and others are downright objectionable. But the act of struggling with mitzvah in itself connects us to our roots and to one another. Maimonides wasn’t the last word on Torah, which is fortunately a living document. The mitzvah map is changing all the time. There are plenty to choose from, though. So find one that means something to you. 

Then just do it. For the New Year.

I know of one rabbi who asked his entire adult ed class to go home and light candles that Friday night. The response was amazing. – sort of like the response we had last year when several congregants hosted others for Shabbat @ Home, something we’re planning to do again in a few months.

One student came back and said “My family laughed at me.”

Another said he went upstairs and lit them in the closet. (I don’t recommend that).

And a third told the teacher, “I went home and lit candles last Friday night – and my husband cried.”

You know, it’s interesting that we always use the expression that we practice mitzvot. We’re always practicing. We never get it right! 

In Judaism, Practice never makes perfect. But practice makes something much more important. 

Practice makes purpose.

Practice makes holiness. Practice brings hope. Practice brings bonding. Practice brings people together. Practice brings communities together. 

Practice brings heaven and earth together. So just do it!

And have a purpose-filled New Year.

Wishing you all a good 2024. I am grateful to you, my growing group of subscribers. If you enjoy my essays, please consider recommending subscriptions to my Substack to your friends and family. And may the new year being peace and security to Israel, Ukraine and to innocent people all over the world.

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