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Parshas Nitzavim - Vayeilech (5771)

How to Make Your Jewish New Year's Resolutions Stick

On January 2, millions of people begin the annual ritual of New Year's Resolutions. Memberships at health clubs and diet programs soar in the following weeks. Sales of chocolate and alcohol decline, replaced by healthier food and drink. People take a long, hard look at their spending habits as they sort through the bills coming in January's mail. "Time for a new beginning" is the message promoted by news media. Yet despite all this hype, most people will fail at their resolutions. By February 2, most New Year's resolutions will be no more than a dim memory. In fact, research shows that while 52% of participants in a resolution study were confident of success with their goals, only 12% actually achieved their goals. A separate study in 2007 by Richard Wisemen from the University of Bristol showed that 78% of those who set New Year resolutions fail.

Unfortunately, we Jews don’t seem to fare that much better when it comes to our own (original) version of the News Year’s Resolution – the Ten Days of Repentance which begin on Rosh Hashanah and culminate with Yom Kippur. During this ten day period, we do teshuvah and we promise G-d that we will make positive changes in our lives in the hope of meriting a good year, yet pretty soon after we hear that shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur, we are already back to our old ways.

This sad reality is reflected in a verse that we read only a few weeks ago in Parshas Eikev. There the Torah states that the “eyes of G-d” are always upon the Land of Israel “mei’reishis hashanah, from the beginning of the year, ad acharis shanah, until year’s end” (see Deuteronomy 11:12). The verse speaks of the beginning of “the year until year’s end”; it does not say to the end of the year.

The Satmar Rav, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum ZT”L, points out this glaring lack of parallel structure in the verse, and offers a homiletical interpretation: Commonly, people approach Rosh Hashanah with a powerful resolve to improve themselves and stop their negative behaviors once and for all – and that the coming new year will be hashanah, “the” year. But as time goes on, their resolve quickly weakens, and they slide back into their old ways, so that by the time the year is over it is acharis shanah, the end of just another year.

It is no wonder then that so many of us feel that our prayers each year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur aren’t being answered. Maybe if we were more sincere in our promises to G-d, and our resolutions lasted longer than just till the end of Yom Kippur, we would get what we asked for. But if we just pay lip service to G-d on the High Holidays without any real intention or gameplan to actually change our ways even a little bit during the coming year, what can we really expect G-d to do for us on his end? I am reminded of a fascinating interpretation by the famous Maggid (itinerant preacher) Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky of a very strange statement made by the Talmud in Pesachim 118a: “Kashin Mezonosav Shel Adam Ke’Kriyas Yam Suf – It is as difficult [for G-d] to provide a livelihood for a person as it was to split the Red Sea”. Why is either of these so “difficult” for G-d to do, and what is the parallel between them?

Rav Galinsky explained as follows: The Midrash in Shemos Rabbah 21:6 tells us, based on a verse in Exodus 14:27, that G-d made a “condition” with the Red Sea when He created it that it would split for the Jewish people when they needed it 2448 years later. If this is so, we can ask why it was so difficult for the sea to split at the stipulated time. The answer is that the sea had agreed to split for the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But by the time the Jews left Egypt and stood at the Red Sea, they looked very different than their forefathers. Over the 210 years they spent in slavery, the Jewish people had adopted many of the idolatrous ways of their Egyptian hosts and no longer resembled their holy ancestors.

The same “difficulty”, says the Maggid, exists with regard to providing a livelihood for the Jewish people. We are taught that “all of a person’s sustenance [for the entire year] is determined for him [during the ten days] between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” (see the Talmud in Beitzah 16a). So a Jewish person – let’s call him Barry Goldstein - goes to the synagogue during the High Holidays, wraps himself in a tallis (prayer shawl), and prays with intent and feeling, sincerely regretting his past misdeeds, and making promises to be better in the future – all in the hopes that in the coming year G-d will give him that extra $40,000 that he needs in order to redo his kitchen and to build an much-needed extension on to his house. The “ministering angels” in heaven take note of both his sincere and heartfelt repentance and his special request – and they take a “snapshot” of him and write on the back of the photo “Barry Goldstein needs an additional $40,000 this year”, and they file it away with all the other New Year’s requests.

When Chanukah comes and goes and the money still hasn’t come, Barry starts praying to G-d again, asking for his special Rosh Hashanah petition to be filled. The ministering angels quickly run over to the file cabinet and pull out Barry’s picture. The “difficulty” with granting his request is that by now Barry no longer resembles the guy they took a picture of on the High Holidays! Then he was wearing a tallis and praying with fervor and promising G-d everything – and taking his Judaism and his relationship with G-d seriously – but soon after Yom Kippur ended, Barry let it all slide and was back to the way he was before the High Holidays began!

So what can we do to make our Jewish New Year’s resolutions stick – so that even when Chanukah comes around, we will be able to say that we have kept our promises to G-d and we still resemble the way we were during the High Holidays?

I would like to share with you one profoundly simple idea from our Sages that I think can help all of us succeed with our own Rosh Hashanah resolutions this year.

The Midrash, expounding on a verse in Shir Hashirim 5:2, states that G-d lovingly tells the Jewish people: “Pischu Li Pesach K’Chudo Shel Machat, V’aani Eftach Lachem Pesach K’Pischo Shel Ulam - Open for me a hole like the eye of the needle, and I will open for you [the rest] like the entranceway to a great hall”. The commentators explain that G-d is telling us that we don’t have to do the whole job ourselves. If we want to make a teshuvah “breakthrough” and effect positive changes in our lives for the coming year, all we need to do is to make a tiny little hole – like the size of the eye of a needle – and G-d will help us take care of the rest. The one condition, however, is that the little hole that we make has to go all the way through to the other side, i.e. whatever small resolution we do take upon ourselves during the Ten Days of Repentance has to be one that we know we will definitely be able to fulfill. And when G-d sees that we were sincere with that one tiny resolution - and that we actually came through on it during the year - He will “make our little hole much bigger” and help us come through on all our other challenges as well.

The basic idea is to pick one small area in our lives that needs improvement and commit to changing it during the coming year – but we need to make sure that we’ve picked something which we can virtually guarantee that we won’t fail at. (Sorry for ending that sentence with a preposition, but grammar is a subject that I did fail at …Oops! I did it again!).

So, for example, one Rosh Hashanah when my wife and I decided that we wanted to change our Friday afternoon routine for the coming year because we were always running late with our Shabbos preparations and were stressed out and losing patience with each other and with the kids, we took upon ourselves to light the candles and take Shabbos in just five minutes earlier – not every Shabbos, which might have been unrealistic, but once a month. To make sure we carried out our resolution, my wife posted a big sign in the kitchen reminding us of the new time she wanted to light the candles and start Shabbos. This was one very small, but significant, commitment we made as a family for Rosh Hashanah and we were able to stick to it throughout the year.

I would like to conclude with the second part of the Satmar Rav’s homiletical interpretation mentioned above:

In the Kedushah recited during the cantor’s repetition of the Mussaf prayer on Shabbos and the Holidays (according to Nusach Sefard), we say: “He is our G-d, He is Our Father, He is Our King, He is Our Savior. He will save and redeem us a second time, and will tell us in His mercy for all to see, ‘I have redeemed you - acharis k’reishis - at the end (of time) as at the beginning, to be to you for a G-d’.” The Satmar Rav explained that G-d is hinting to us with these words that we will be redeemed from the current exile acharis k’reishis – i.e. when the end (of the year) is like the beginning (of the year). The time will come when we won’t just begin the year with the hope that this will be “the” year, but when we will be able to look back at the end of the year and declare proudly, “This was indeed ‘the’ year.” When that time comes, G-d will bring the ultimate redemption. May this be “the” year!

HAVE A SWEET NEW YEAR!

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