Thursday, January 14, 2010

Happy New Year!

I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions.

My friends used to hear that from me just about every year around this time: “I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions.” The reasoning behind it has changed over the years, but the result is the same, and I still don’t do New Year’s Resolutions.

When I was in high school I would say it simply to be rebellious. I thought I was cool if I didn’t do what everyone else was doing. Like any rebellion for the sake of rebellion, I had no good reason for it. I just liked to say it.

In college I said it with the qualifier, “Jews make resolutions in September.” True as that may be, the deeper meanings of repentance and self-improvement that surround the High Holy Days was not my intent. I was still just being rebellious, but I was adding Jewish pride to my yearly uprising.

New Year’s Resolutions do have a knack for getting broken. On the news today the anchors were joking about breaking them. Has anyone here already broken their New Year’s Resolution? I checked Facebook earlier today, and at 9AM a friend of mine posted that he broke his resolution. 9AM! How resolved could he have been? So perhaps it is better simply not to make a promise than to plant false hopes.

Really it is just the phrase I have issue with. It is a little silly to make a resolution only one day a year when we don’t really intend to keep it. I mentioned a minute ago that I used to say, “Jews make resolutions in September.” Perhaps that is a bit of an understatement. Over the High Holy Days we make t’shuvah, which is more than a resolution. A resolution is an attempt to fix an aspect of our self that we want to improve, like to lose weight, leave less of a carbon footprint, or fix something in the house. T’shuvah is more complete. We translate it as “repentance,” but it is literally a “turning.” When done right, t’shuvah is a complete re-inventing of the self. When we make t’shuvah there is no need to make a promise to change because the change becomes a part of us.

To say that we only do it over the High Holy Days is misleading on another level, too. In the daily Amidah, the blessings we recite during every prayer service on the week, we recite a series of four blessings that that form a step-by-step guide to t’shuvah if we pay attention to their intent.

Quick review: the weekday Amidah is composed of 19 blessings. The first three are blessings of praise to God. The last three are blessings that give thanks to God. In the middle are 13 blessings that ask for things, which are called bakashot. There are blessings for healing and world peace, and blessings for the vanquishing of our enemies and material abundance. Anything that could be requested is asked for in those 13 blessings.

The first four bakashot are called Binah, T’shuvah, Selichah, and Ge’ulah, or Understanding, Returning, Forgiveness, and Redemption. As the name for the second of these blessings tells us, this is the guide to t’shuvah. In order to truly make t’shuvah we must first understand ourselves. The Binah blessing asks God to share Divine insight with us. We ask to get in touch with true understanding of ourselves we see with great clarity what is required of us. We call it an epiphany or an Ah-Hah moment. This self-awareness is only possible when we completely understand our imperfections and are ready to change. Clearly this does not happen often, which is why we pray for it every day, and why it is the first thing we request. If and when we do get these moments of clarity about ourselves we are ready to move to the next step.

T’shuvah is the blessing that asks God to return us to God’s teaching, God’s guidance, and God’s presence. T’shuvah helps us know how to make the change. Making t’shuvah cannot be done alone. We need God’s guidance to return to a better version of ourselves, whatever that may be. We turn inward with our new-found understanding so that we might be able to return to the best self we can be.

The next blessing is Selichah, or forgiveness. Now this seems a little backwards from how we usually talk about t’shuvah. Usually we ask forgiveness first, then we try to figure out how not to repeat our sins. That is t’shuvah as repentance, but as far as resolving to better ourselves, we cannot ask forgiveness until we have a real understanding of what we have done wrong and God’s guidance to be able to fix it. A friend of mine once taught me that “I’m sorry,” isn’t an apology, it’s a line. A real apology is the ability to point out exactly what we have done wrong and how we plan to fix it. But this forgiveness is not from one person to another. This is the ability to forgive ourselves. To do that we first need understanding and returning.

Self-forgiveness is a truly remarkable thing, and once that has been accomplished we can be redeemed, which is the meaning of Ge’ulah. The fourth blessing asks that God redeem us swiftly. Redemption is a higher state of being, the betterment of self that leads to the betterment of all. It is the result of truly transforming, making t’shuvah in a real, lasting, and meaningful way.

We strive daily to make ourselves better. Every time we participate in a weekday prayer service we ask God’s help to make ourselves better. That’s the key to understanding the difference between t’shuvah and a resolution. When we make a resolution we are promising to do something on our own. When we do t’shuvah we know that we can only change with God’s help, and that if we strive to reach for it, God is with us to be our guide and to help us turn.

May we strive every day to improve ourselves. May we understand and build on that understanding not only today but every day, so that 2010 will be a year of blessing, a year of happiness and health, and a year of daily improvement and t’shuvah.