This year Rosh Hashanah feels like it really snuck up on me. Maybe it’s because the holiday falls early in September this year; or perhaps it’s that, in general, my years seem to be moving ever more rapidly; or, I wonder if it is because I may not have made enough progress on the personal goals I chose for myself during the high holidays last year? Regardless, the start of the new Jewish year is approaching and this time always brings me the challenge of assessing how and what I’ve done over the past 365 days.
While there is much in our liturgy about God judging us during the Yamim Noraim (High Holy days), I tend to wonder if I judge myself accurately, if I am too easy on myself, or too critical. Honest self-assessment is not an easy task. Some lack a degree of self-awareness and feel comfortable just the way they are, while others go to the opposite extreme and have a mostly negative or pessimistic view of the world and/or themselves.
I recently came across a book that struck a chord with me when it comes to the process of true self-assessment. “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)” is a book by social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. In it they state, “As fallible human beings, all of us share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for any actions that may turn out to be harmful, immoral, or stupid.” They go on to say that self-justification has both costs and benefits, after all, “if we dwelled over every one of our mistakes we probably couldn’t sleep at night.” On the other hand, “mindless self-justification will stunt our growth,” and may ultimately lead to self-defeating behavior.
It is important to remember that our tradition stresses the necessity of owning up to our individual responsibility, but at the same time, reminds us to be forgiving in regard to our human frailties. In fact, it is very reassuring to me that Judaism talks less about sin and more about ‘missing the mark.’ To me, this means we can and should recognize when we have tried to be our best selves, but for a host of reasons, we may not have quite improved/changed in one area or another over the previous year…or at least not as much as we had planned or hoped for.
I believe it is most helpful during this time of personal reflection to look beyond our individual mistakes, and instead focus on recognizing patterns of thought that cause us to repeat behaviors we would ultimately like to change.
The theory of Innate Health, which many Rabbis believe is consistent with the Torah, emphasizes that human beings are innately healthy and sacred. Innate health frees people to see “their state of mind- their felt response to perceived reality- as an indicator of the moment to moment quality of their thinking.” We may not have the power to control every thought that comes into our head, but we do have an ability to transform the quality or direction of our thinking. I was taught that one way to actualize this ability is to visualize a piece of garbage (representing a negative or obsessive thought), like an empty soda can floating down a river, that you can simply allow to flow out of your consciousness. I have found that with a little practice in altering one’s thought patterns, we can begin to improve the quality of our thinking and free our minds to embrace a vast array of more positive and optimistic thoughts.
At this time of year, a few weeks prior to the holidays, it is helpful to begin thinking about one’s own personal spiritual goals for the New Year. I challenge you to allow yourself some time for focused thought now, plan for what you think will help accomplish your goal, and get ready to be fully committed.
Remember, our task is to find the right balance… be real about your failings, know that you have the power and strength to change, and that God, while judging you, always has the wisdom to be fair and compassionate.
Best wishes for a Happy and Healthy New Year! Chag Sameach!
Marty Schneer, Executive Director, Jewish Community Center of the North Shore