Jews are lucky. They get two New Year’s observances. And two chances to make New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, they also get two chances to break those resolutions. But all in all, it’s a pretty good deal, don’t you agree? Two opportunities each year to pause, reflect and embrace new beginnings.
I, for one, take the notion of resolutions very seriously. I may not be all that good at sticking to them, but I am very intent on thinking about them, writing them down and trying to fulfill them.
January 1st resolutions, secular pledges, are generally filled with vows of self-improvement. I, like many people, make healthful resolutions. To lose weight. (Do people ever resolve to gain weight?) To eat better. To exercise more.
I also make “intellectual” resolutions. To improve my mind. To read more. Watch less TV. (Mid-pandemic, this one’s harder than ever to fulfill. But still, I’ll try.) Some people, even without a pandemic to spur them on, resolve to develop a new skill, learn a foreign language, take up a new hobby.
There are “I want to be more productive” resolutions. In my case, I had plans in 2020 to begin writing a biography of a dear friend. Through no fault of his or mine, our plans collapsed. I had structured a lot of energy, time, and emotion, into this plan and I haven’t quite recovered from the disappointment that we cannot go forward. I’m struggling to devise a Plan B “Big Project.” So this category of resolution is particularly important for me in the new year, but I’m not “there” yet.
I also always make “I want to be a better person” kind of resolutions. This category is good for Jan. 1 but also is relevant for Jews when the High Holidays arrive.
Indeed, I revisit it with special zeal throughout the Days of Awe.
As I age, I’m increasingly grateful to have two chances to focus — and refocus — on my need for moral betterment. At 66, I confess I’m stuck in some bad habits and need all the reminders I can get not to speak lashon hara, not to be impatient, to practice kindness and, in all ways, to be a better, more charitable person.
As Jews, we know that our traditions of making amends and vowing to improve ourselves annually during the High Holidays harken to Biblical strictures, but I was curious about non-Jewish customs and did a little research.
Historians say ancient Babylonians made New Year’s resolutions 4,000 years ago as part of a mid-March religious festival tied to the planting of crops. During their 12-day observance of Akitu, they crowned new kings or reaffirmed loyalty to the current king, pledged obedience to their gods, repay debts and returned borrowed objects. And in return, these ancient people hoped their gods would bestow favor on them for the coming year.
In ancient Rome, a similar practice evolved after Emperor Julius Caesar established Jan. 1 as the start of the year (circa 45 BCE). Believing that the god Janus symbolically looked back into the previous year and ahead into the future, the Romans offered sacrifices and made promises of good conduct for the coming year.
For early Christians, the first day of the new year became the solemn occasion to contemplate past mistakes and resolve to do better in the future. And although modern celebrations are more a time for revelry, many people do still pause and reflect.
Yet statistics show that while as many as 45 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, only 8 percent accomplish them!
I don’t know why good habits are so hard to establish. I’m obviously no psychologist or successful resolution-achiever! That’s why I’m so grateful that I get two chances each year to pause, reflect and renew my vows to be a better person.
As for the Jewish people, I still say we’re the lucky ones, observing two New Year’s occasions to commit ourselves to working on personal improvement goals and, more broadly, on the continuation of tikkun olam.
Happy New Year. Good health to all. Vaccines are coming.