I recognize that the new Gregorian Calendar year 2012 has zero significance in Judaism, but as a part of the wider Western culture in which I live, I couldn’t help but notice that January 1 is a time that many people try to make changes in their lives to develop healthier habits and achieve their goals. While January 1 isn’t celebrated with a lot of big bashes in Israel – in fact for many people it goes unnoticed – after all, January 2 is another work day (even though it was a Sunday this year). I even forgot what was going on when I heard fireworks coming from the Arab neighborhood next door at midnight.
But I’m reading blogs about having a healthier, happier new year, and I want to be a part of that. I feel myself sliding out of good habits and into some bad habits. And I realized that a lot about observant Judaism is following the right habits. Certainly if one keeps Shabbat merely out of habit or ritual then a lot is lost, but the regularity of the week, focused on Shabbat, the regularity of prayer and of daily ritual, are designed to maintain a mode of being and living that follows the Torah.
Shabbat is many wonderful things, and it’s also inconvenient at times. But for Jews who have been observing Shabbat laws for years or their entire lives, it’s also a habit. A person learns not to take long trips on Friday afternoon or to schedule the DVR to record the basketball game on Saturday.
Sometimes I’m enjoying a relaxing Friday afternoon or the opposite, a crazed, rushed, get-everything-in-before-Shabbat afternoon, and I joke to my husband that I’d like to reschedule with God because Shabbat is just inconvenient right now and I’d rather do Monday. Of course it doesn’t work like that.
But before I became observant there weren’t too many absolutes in my life. I could reschedule pretty much anything if needed be. When I first started observing Shabbat, I would sometimes get invited to something on a Saturday and I’d say, “I can’t because of Shabbat”. Uninitiated friends would say “Oh, it’s this week too?” I’d joke that I had a standing appointment with God.
For a fun video representation of the type of situation, see the video below.
Check any strategy about fulfilling a new year’s resolution, and I think you’ll see two things in common — commitment and consistency. You can’t lose weight and keep it off with one week or proper diet and exercise. Spiritual growth requires the same, and so no, Shabbat is not optional.
I’ve fallen out of the habit of praying on a daily basis. And it is harder to get started again than it was to wake up on a morning that I’m feeling unmotivated and uninspired and to begin a conversation with God. What would be even harder is if I had never done it in the first place. Because I already know how to pray, at least in terms of traditional prayer, it’s easier to get started again than if I hadn’t ever.
As with building any sustainable habit, it’s also important to start small. It’s unrealistic to think that I’ll now spend an hour a day in prayer. I’m disappointed in myself for committing to only 5 minutes a day. But I know that it’s most definitely better than nothing.
Our sages understood that there would be times when a person would be unable or unwilling to pray, and they instituted laws for such times – condensed prayers or even exemptions. Today it’s accepted that one should pray daily pretty much no matter what, because of the understanding that if there are too many interruptions to this important habit, that it will be more difficult to pray when our minds are again at ease.
The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is the established time for Jews to reflect on the past year, repent for misdeeds, and make resolutions to correct their behavior in the upcoming year. What is less widely understood and advertised is that once a year isn’t really enough. Teshuva, repentance and self-reflection is for all year long, and while it’s easy to mock people who make new years resolutions, knowing full well that the odds of success are statistically against them, I admire those who make an honest effort. Striving to do better, physically, emotionally, or in any other way, is a Jewish value and what it means to be fully alive as a human being with the capacity for conscious change.
Rosh Hashnah comes 10 days before Yom Kippur, the “Day of Judgment”, when God inscribes our fate for good, in “The Book of Life” or, well, something else. However, according to Kabbalah, our fate is not “sealed” until Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught that we even have until Hanukkah. Additionally, Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of each month, is considered a mini Yom Kippur, and as such some people even have the custom of fasting and adding special prayers on the day before Rosh Chodesh. And in the daily Amidah prayer, there is a prayer for forgiveness where one has the opportunity to review and ask for forgiveness for transgressions. While many people wait until the days before Yom Kippur to ask forgiveness from their fellow man they have wronged, the fact of the matter is that we can do this any day of the year. My yoga teacher says that each breath is an opportunity to cleanse and start anew.
There are a lot of reminders that we can do better, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the loudest calls for spiritual improvement (shofar blasts), and the secular new year the loudest call for physical improvement (free one-month gym trials). Given how difficult habits are to establish and keep, I think it’s great we have so many reminders.
The key is not to get discouraged, for each year, month, week, or day, is another chance to try again.