Rosh Hashanah Resolutions Address Life's Spiritual Elements

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009

Sara Brenner wants to repair some relationships. Salem Pearce wants to learn more about her newly adopted faith. Judy Itkin plans to exercise and practice patience with her children.

It is that time of the year for Jews around the world: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year of 5770, which begins Friday at sundown.

In the Jewish calendar, the most sacred time is the 10-day period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, which this year falls on Sept. 28. Called "the Days of Awe," it is a time when Jews ask forgiveness for their sins and the sins of their community, from one another and from God.

Rosh Hashanah (the words literally translate to "head of the year") is an opportunity for Jewish people to undergo a process of introspection and self-repair and make promises to themselves for better thoughts or actions.

These promises can sound like New Year's resolutions from the more secular holiday on Jan. 1, but for many, they're not.

"When we think of New Year's resolutions in American culture, we have a tendency to think of proactive things we can do for self-improvement," said Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation, a conservative synagogue in Alexandria. "Whereas in Rosh Hashanah, the look is not forward -- 'How can I be a better me?' -- but a look back: 'How did I not realize my potential this year, and what do I need to do to correct that shortcoming and make sure that I am better able to fulfill the purpose for which I am in this world?' "

The process of reflection and repentance takes place over a 40-day period that begins about four weeks before Rosh Hashanah, at the start of the month called Elul on the lunar Jewish calendar. But the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the most intense.

To encourage meaningful resolutions for Rosh Hashanah, synagogues and their rabbis often give guidance.

Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda passes out checklists to the 1,000 or so worshipers who attend during the holiday season. The sheets contain lists of charitable organizations and initiatives, and everyone is asked to sign up to perform community service, said Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb.

"For us, community service is a thread that runs through everything connected to Judaism," he said. "And the High Holy Days, as the centerpiece of our liturgical year, are no exception."

Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel, an orthodox synagogue in Georgetown, plans to devote one of his Rosh Hashanah sermons to the difficult economic times, and to point out that these setbacks can cause people to "cheat and steal and take things that don't belong to them."

He plans to encourage those dwelling on their financial stress to resolve to redirect their focus. "Avoid focusing on the negative," he said he will tell his flock. "Find something that is meaningful -- that gives you some joy, some spiritual meaning, and some fun."

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