Friday, January 3, 2014

What Judaism Can Teach Us About New Year's Resolutions

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, the first directive is given by God to the entire collective of the Jewish people: to observe the first Jewish month.  “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.”  This moment, the first time God instructs the Jewish people collectively, marks the official beginning of Jewish time. Not that our ancestors weren't observing time before.  But this moment initiates the beginning of our ancestors marking time according to their own collective narrative, their own collective history and story.  At this point, for our ancestors, time begins again. 

Usually, we wouldn't read parshat Bo until early to mid-February, but the oddities of this Jewish calendar year have presented us with a powerful opportunity to read parshat Bo the same week as we observe the secular new year, the same week that we begin counting secular time again in the annual solar cycle.  So I got to thinking: if Chanukkah could help inform the way we experienced Thanksgiving this year – there was that whole Thanksgivukkah thing a while back -  then perhaps parshat Bo might have something to inform our experience of the secular new year as well.

There is an interesting difference in approach to time between our western, secular culture and Judaism, and that difference is really easy to see when we compare the words for month and year in English and Hebrew.  In English, the word month originated from a word that meant moon and year originated from a word that meant season. We can easily understand how the words evolved, and their roots make sense.  They are, after all, concepts of time and their etymologies source to the same time concepts.  But these words in Hebrew prove quite different.  In Hebrew, the word for month is chodesh.  The root of chodesh isn't tied to the moon or seasons or even to time.  Its root literally means “new.” And the Hebrew word for year, shannah, is connected to the root for “change.”   It is extremely instructive that the Jewish lens on these basic units of time moves us out of the surface definitions of these words and takes us into the deeper concepts of renewal and evolution.

We, as humans, of course, resonate with this connection of time and change or renewal – just think about those New Year’s resolutions so many of us make, implied in each the hope and yearning we have to make changes in our lives, to make new and renew our lives, our actions, our choices as a way of marking the beginning of a new year. 
The trick, of course, is that New Year’s resolutions aren't always so easy to keep.  It’s why the first week in January is always so crowded at the gym, but by the time you reach February, that big wave of newly resolved and well-intended people has petered down to just a little ripple.  Our human desire to wipe the slate clean and start fresh, although commendable, proves notably difficult in actuality to accomplish.

This is where that first directive of marking the first month or chodesh comes to offer us a powerful insight. 

Let’s think back to the point at which God instructs our ancestors to mark the first month of all the months of the year?  It is not delivered when the people cross the sea once they are free, when they have left the constrictive oppression of Egypt and the new era of living free has actually begun, but rather, while they are still slaves, still dwelling in their mud shacks in the land of Goshen.  They will be freed – it will happen at the end of the portion, but when they receive this designation to mark the first of the months, it is a moment when they are still living amidst oppression, a moment while they are essentially still living in their past.  And it is in that place of the past, before the apex moment arrives, that our ancestors are told to start over. 

To put it in our secular New Year equivalent, it would be to start going to the gym on Dec 17th, instead of waiting to start until Jan 1.  When should we change our behavior, when should we begin again?  Jewish tradition teaches that we don’t have to wait until the “right time” or when we feel everything is perfectly aligned.  We begin again in the midst of the chaos – in the murky middle.  We begin the practice and cultivation of change while still actively familiar with the situations and behaviors from which we are trying to move away.  Because to believe that an arbitrary marker of time will somehow wipe away the place from where we've come, the struggles and setbacks of the past, well that, as we know, is the stuff of good marketing campaigns, but certainly not of reality.

We are told to start counting Jewish time at a liminal moment poised between the great journey from slavery to freedom, from exile to return, from constriction to release. And that is not just the journey our ancestors took, it’s the journey of each of our souls, every year, every month, every day.

Ultimately, Judaism doesn't really care all that much about our secular new year’s resolution.  If we make one, great.  But if we find we don’t keep it, we don’t need to wait around until the next year to try again.  The opportunity to change and renew doesn't just come around one time a year, or even one month a year, but rather, any day, any moment, all the time. After all, Jewish tradition teaches that God renews the work of creation every day. 

There’s another funny Jewish confluence with the secular year this week. The beginning of the month of Shvat – think Tu b'Shvat – was yesterday, January 2.  Shvat is the month when we are told that in Israel the sap begins to rise in the trees, stimulating new growth internally, new growth that will soon yield deeper roots, new sprouts and blossoms.    May this day, this month, this year, be a year of deepening roots and new growth for us all.  And if not Shvat, then Adar, and if not Adar…well, you get the picture.

Shabbat Shalom.