This one is a bit of a cheat, though, as I wrote it for my synagogue bulletin this year.
To usher in 2012, the Wall Street Journal published a “Top 10 List.” Only, it was “The 27 Rules of Conquering the Gym,” designed for all of those who join the gym come January 1, convinced this is going to be the year that they lose those pounds or run a marathon. Among his advice:
19. If a gym class is going to be effective, it's hard. If you're relaxed and enjoying yourself, you're at brunch.
25. Fact: Thinking about going to the gym burns between 0 and 0 calories.
3. Develop a gym routine. Try to go at least three times a week. Do a mix of strength training and cardiovascular conditioning. After the third week, stop carrying around that satchel of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies.
It is no wonder that every January 1, over 100 million Americans make resolutions. There is something so seductive about considering change, imagining the results. Who wouldn’t want to live the life of their dreams, or change a current—frustrating—reality? Six months later? Less than 50% of those people are sticking to their resolutions. That’s not so surprising either, given what we know. Change is hard. Whether it is a personal challenge or the challenge of repairing the world, the work of shifting from what is to what could be is messy, difficult, and sometimes painful.
But, of course, it’s March, not January. Why am I talking about New Year’s Resolutions??
The rabbis of the Mishnah teach that there are actually four New Years in Jewish tradition. Elul marks the new year for the tithes (think, ancient Tax Day). In Tishrei, we celebrate Rosh HaShanah—the New Year on the calendar. In Shevat, it is the new year for the trees. And, in Nisan—the month coming up—we celebrate the new year for the festivals. We celebrate Passover, the festival of spring, the celebration of freedom. What were the rabbis’ thinking with all these New Years – how many times can we mark a new beginning? Perhaps, they had a deep insight into the human condition, an understanding of the tremendous challenge of change within each of us and in our world.
They seemed to understand that like with modern resolutions, you need to “check in” along the way; you can’t just set a big goal and expect it to happen. Passover, with its emphasis on renewal and rebirth---not to mention cleaning—is a great “check in” point; you can assess where you are with those resolutions. The physical ones, yes, but particularly the spiritual work which began at Rosh HaShanah.
On the night before Passover begins, there is a tradition of doing a search for chametz in the house. With a feather and a candle, one is supposed to search all of the nooks and crannies for the errant Cheerios and croissant crumbs that evaded the vacuum cleaner until now.
I have shared with some of you over the years a teaching that I brought to my first interview, a teaching to which I return each Passover. I spoke about a ritual that I never thought I—a New Yorker born and raised—would find suddenly meaningful: my Passover car-wash. I described the sense of relief when my car would emerge shiny and chametz-free—from the carwash.
Those of you who have been in my office recently—okay, ever—know that neatness is not my strong suit, and I find Passover cleaning and preparation quite daunting. I think that is why the car-wash felt so freeing; when it was done, it was done. I never felt like there was more that I could do. It felt—like successful resolutions are supposed to feel—manageable and measurable.
Passover is our halfway point in the Jewish year. How did you hope to grow as 5772 began? What have you done to make that a reality? As Passover draws near, we pray for and celebrate the rebirth of the fruits of the earth. Let’s also make it a time not just to pray for, but to plan for, the rebirth of our spirits.
The search for chametz is meant to be literal. We are to clean out our homes, finding all of the crumbs that have gathered there over the course of a year. Think of it as super-sized spring cleaning. Yet, if we only focus on the physical, we have missed a wonderful opportunity for reflection and growth. Chametz is forbidden because it puffs us up; it has often been compared to arrogance, but I want to suggest that spiritual chametz can be anything taking up unnecessary room, anything preventing us from feeling free.
I invite you, even before you think about the physical preparations for Pesach, to take some time to think about spiritual goals; either to check in with where you are, or to create some now. Our ancestors, leaving Egypt, had to make quick decisions about what they wanted to bring with them into a new country, a new life. What it is that you would like to leave behind in Mitzrayim, in the narrow place. What is “puffing you up?” What is taking up unnecessary space?
Like the physical search for chametz, you may not be able to find all of it—but remember that the mitzvah resides in the search as much as in the finding. And once you start, it just might become a habit.
But, still no chocolate chip cookies….