Making Resolutions for Rosh Hashanah, and Beyond

“This year I will exercise more.”

“I promise to donate more money to charity.”

“My goal this year is to read a book for 20 minutes more each day.”

“And this year I will pray mincha every weekday.”

Are any of these the Rosh Hashanah resolution that YOU will make?

We Jews have many prayers, rituals and customs for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our High Holy Days. There are specific penitential prayers. There are special foods we eat. We have rituals such as tashlich, casting bread on the water to represent casting away sins.

But should we also make New Year’s type resolutions for Rosh Hashanah, similar to what many people do for the new secular year? And if we do, what type of resolutions should we make?

Many people like to make New Year’s resolutions for the secular new year. They focus on New Year’s Day and the first few weeks of the new calendar page. For many participants these tend to be personal improvement goals: losing weight, exercising more, applying to earn an academic degree, and improving relationships with family and friends. For other people it entails goals that are more communal, such as promising to volunteer more often, donate blood or help out at blood donation drives, participating in park and beach cleaning efforts, assisting at food kitchens and food pantries, and the like.

The motivation behind making resolutions, of planning out new (or improved) personal goals and trying to keep to them, is an age-old form of individualistic improvement. It is a hopeful way of going through life, an inspirational method of challenging oneself and pegging it to the onset of the new calendar year.

There is plenty of that woven into Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the intermediary days, Aseret Y’mai Teshuvah. The concept of doing atonement and apologizing, of making amends and pondering how to make the new year better; these do sound familiar to those making secular New Year’s resolutions.

Are such resolutions necessarily teshuva, repentance and return? In certain ways, yes. Resolutions do have some form of regret that goads the person who resolves. The person regrets that he or she hasn’t done something in a certain way, and wishes to make amends. Making a resolution is also about fulfilling hopes and goals, and feeling a sense of accomplishment.

Do you want to make secular resolutions or Jewish-themed resolutions? Think about that. A Jewish-themed resolution might be to participate more often in synagogue services, study texts more regularly, give tzedakah to Jewish causes and charities, and so on. There can also be a certain amount of crossover: resolving to read more may manifest itself in reading more books on Jewish topics. Some Jews might like the idea of making “Jewish resolutions” for Rosh Hashanah and “secular resolutions” for January 1st. Ultimately, it’s up to each person.

Here are some ideas to help facilitate making resolutions:

  1. Make a resolution that is pegged to the short term, not a lifetime. Perhaps you will integrate it well into your routine and it will become part of you for a long, long time.
  2. How do you phrase it? Is it a promise, which could become overwhelming? Or do you say it’s a plan, a goal? Think about your style, your personality, and it will be more realistic, a better fit.
  3. Is it a positive or a negative resolution? For example, do you make a resolution to eat less junk food OR make a resolution to eat one extra serving of fresh fruit each day? Do you make a resolution to stop using curse words when stuck in commuter traffic, or make a resolution to recite song lyrics and poems when stuck in commuter traffic? Think about the ramifications of each path.
  4. Small steps versus big reaches: some people take on rather ambitious resolutions that might become burdensome, while others relish the task of a big endeavor. Which will make you more likely to succeed? Ponder this. 
  5. Strategize. Put it into your calendar(s).
  6. Say it aloud. Write it. Go beyond thinking about it. This makes the resolution more concrete.
  7. Have a partner. Perhaps you resolve to study a certain Jewish text; you and a partner can make this happen. Perhaps you resolve to quit smoking; you and a partner can help encourage each other. (My mother and my aunt did this and were successful together.)
  8. Reward yourself for doing it. Tick off items on that checklist. Indulge in little stickers on your calendar that tally up your successes.

There are many types of resolutions you can make. Look frankly at your life, at your behavior and your personality, and take this seriously, not lightly.

And might I suggest a resolution that will make the world a better and safer place? Resolve to be a better driver, bicyclist, or pedestrian. Resolve to watch more carefully, to signal, to pay attention to the road and people on the road and not let your eyes wander to your cell phone. 

Have a happy, healthy and thoughtful New Year.