Sunday, January 1, 2017


One of my goals--I won't say resolutions--for 2017 is to write more. Write to friends--really write to them, and also to write here. And so, I'll begin today, on this first day of a new calendar year.


As a proud American Jew, I have always celebrated in both calendars. I do not struggle with secular American holidays, and I've even been known to dress up for Halloween or send a Valentine. So, New Year's should be a no brainer. Even our rabbis of the Mishnah could imagine that the year contain a multitude of firsts. In one of my favorite texts to teach, the sages say:

There are four New Years. On the first of Nisan is the New Year for Kings and for festivals; on the first of Elul is the New Year for the tithe of animals; Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say, on the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for Sabbatical years, for Jubilee years, for planting, and for vegetables. On the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees according to the School of Shammai. The School of Hillel say on the fifteenth thereof. (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:1)

Setting aside the intricacies of this calendar, and which date corresponds to which holiday, I've always been drawn to this text. It seems that, even almost 2000 years ago, we understood the need for new beginnings, for blank pages and broad visions. We understood that different seasons speak to different priorities, and that there is a power in naming them.  One of the first sermons I ever gave, as a rabbinic student, was around the first of Elul. I taught this text, noting the 4 New Years in my life: Rosh HaShanah, the first day of school, New Year's Day--and opening day of the New York Giants. 

But here's where I am a curmudgeon. I despise New Year's Eve. I always have, and I assume I always will--I don't like forced fun, the expectation that it be "the best night ever." I don't like the way it brings out long-buried, and I'd hoped forgotten, social anxieties. But most of all, I don't like it because it seems shallow. 

I know that we all (and I'll include myself) mean well with our Facebook wishes for a happy New Year, our heartfelt hopes for a year of love and kindness. But after we've put down the champagne and cleaned up the streamers, what does this New Year ask of us? Even my resolutions, at which I fail each year, tend to be amorphous at best, self-absorbed at worst. Lose weight. Get in shape. Be a better wife, mother, friend.

In Jewish tradition, the New Year is actually not the clean slate. Following a month of spiritual preparation, it kicks off 10 days of intense work, days known as Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, the 10 days of repentance--not amorphous, not self-absorbed, not theoretical. There is work to be done, relationships to repair, and--here's the kicker--we're the only ones who can do it.

Earlier today, I came across this thought, Tweeted by Samantha Ettus. She wrote:

Replace the resolutions with specific & achievable goals for each slice of your life - health, relationship, career, friends, parenting etc.

Yes. I thought. Yes. And more. 

Resolutions, big or small, take work. Just like Rosh HaShanah, New Year's Day should inspire us to buckle down, to identify the very real--but very workable--changes we want to make. Maybe it is okay if these are self-absorbed, or at least self-focused; maybe if we change ourselves, we'll see changes in the world around us. But they need to be real, they need to be concrete, and they need to take work.

Kol hatchalot kashot. There is a rabbinic dictum, repeated throughout our ancient texts, that states: All beginnings are difficult. So take your resolutions, your hopes, and dreams--and do the work. Hard work. All beginnings are difficult, but without them--we cannot know the sweetness. Happy 2017.

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