Rosh Hashanah: Tips for keeping New Year’s resolutions

September 16, 2012

Shmuel Herzfeld is a rabbi at Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue in D.C. and a contributor to The Washington Post’s local faith leader network.

The liturgy surrounding the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur reminds us to confess our sins to God.  As part of the confession we declare:

I promise never to repeat this act again.

Is that really a smart thing to do?  To make a promise to God on these sacred days that there is a pretty good chance we won’t be able to keep….  After all, don’t we all go back to our same old mistakes once we leave the spiritual glow of the High Holidays?

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  We can improve our chances of success in our New Year’s resolutions this year.

Here are three steps to making a successful resolution:

The first step is to make a resolution that we can succeed in. When we make a resolution, we will have greater chance for success if it is a limited and concrete resolution.

The Talmud tells us that the prophet Samuel was a Nazir for his whole life. A Nazir is someone who takes an oath to prohibit themselves from coming into contact with a dead body, drinking wine or a grape product, and from taking a haircut.

A Nazir is the paradigm in Jewish life of someone who commits oneself entirely to God. It is the closest thing that Judaism has to a monk. But it is significant, when put in that context, that a Nazir is really a very limited commitment. All a Nazir does is limit three things: contact with the dead, wine, and a haircut. In the scheme of things, this is a limited and realistic commitment. It is not open-ended and infinite. The lesson is that we should make a resolution that is meaningful and impactful, yet limited in scope.

Here are examples of this type of resolution: We might say we are going to take an hour a day that we are not going to gossip; or we are going to increase our Torah study by one hour a week; or we are going to call our parents every single day and tell them we love them.

Step two: When making a resolution and following through on that resolution, don’t expect immediate gratification.

Let’s take physical exercise as an example. Someone might make a resolution to exercise every day for a half hour. The first week of exercise the person might love it, and it will feel great, but then after a while, it will get boring and we might quit exercising. That’s why how we feel when performing the resolution is irrelevant, and we should not focus on it. Instead we should focus on why we are exercising and not how we feel when we exercise. Thus, for example, we should exercise because it makes us healthier people and not because we feel good when exercising.

To translate this into a purely spiritual example, lets say we take it upon ourselves to go to Friday night services every week. The first week we might love the service.  We might love that the tunes are upbeat. But then, after a while, we might get bored and say, “Oh the service is not as enjoyable as it once was.” And then, once our pleasure decreases, we might stop going. That would be a mistake. Instead we should say, “I am going to go to Friday night services because that is what I believe God wants me to do. If it feels good, great; if not, then I will work on myself to try and get a better spiritual result from the service.”

The key is to never let our personal feelings of pleasure interfere with our commitment to our resolution. 

So step two to a successful resolution is to not confuse how we feel with what is our ultimate goal as such a mistake will lessen our commitment and our dedication.

The third step in making a successful resolution is to never doubt one’s own ability to be successful.

Many of us fail in our goals because we think we just can’t do it. We think it is beyond us. Too hard. We give up.

Rosh Hashanah is a reminder that we are great, and we have the ability to succeed. Do we want to diet or quit smoking? It is no problem. God created us, so we can do it. Do we want to control our temper or our tendency to gossip? God created us with the ability to do it.

So these are three steps to help make our resolutions a success: 1) make a specific and limited resolution; 2) don’t confuse our momentary enjoyment with the goal of the resolution; and 3) don’t ever doubt our ability to follow through and successfully complete the resolution.

Here is a bonus hint: Resolutions are more likely to succeed when they are publicly shared and when there is support from friends.

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