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We asked rabbis across the country what to reflect on this Rosh Hashanah

Thought-starters and strategies for implementing real life change this New Year.

Thought-starters and strategies for implementing real life change this New Year

(Credit: Hannah Skelly/unsplash.com)

There's a reason certain tent pole events throughout the year, like birthdays and back-to-school, tend to feel so loaded. For every wave of invigoration that turning a fresh page brings, there's a sharp reminder of everything we failed to accomplish the last time we found ourselves in this position. And when there's all this pressure to plunge into a new beginning with positivity and a plan, it's easy to feel frozen, unsure of where and how to start — even when you really want to. 

That's why, ahead of this year's Rosh Hashanah celebrations, which mark the Jewish New Year, we reached out to rabbis across the country to get their advice on breaking out of this pattern. Below you'll find their thoughts on why this "head of the year" celebration is so ideal for implementing change, as well as tips for engaging in meaningful self-reflection and making your resolutions really stick.  

On what Rosh Hashanah is really all about 

"Rosh Hashanah gives us a chance to stop and reflect on our lives and how we want to live differently. If we take this opportunity seriously, it can be a very meaningful experience — we are presented with the idea that it IS possible for us to change, we don't have to be stuck. It is hard to make drastic change in our lives, which is why we have Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur every. single. year. The Jewish tradition acknowledges that we are flawed and that every year we will have some reason to repent, that we will have something we want to change."

- Rabbi Becca Walker, Beth David B'nai Israel Beth Am, Toronto, Ont.

"The holiday is so meaningful because we express something that is part of our spiritual DNA. On Rosh Hashanah we 'ask' for a lot of things. We all turn to God for a healthy, happy, successful and meaningful year. But in truth, when we ask for all those 'goodies', we are committed to using them for altruistic agendas. Perhaps that is why we choose honey on Rosh Hashanah to 'sweeten' our apples and bread. Honey is created by bees 'taking' the pollen in order to create the honey. Their taking is really and act of giving, because that cross-pollination is crucial for the spreading of the flowers."

- Rabbi Zolly Claman, Beth Israel Synagogue, Edmonton, Alta.

"There is an expression in Hebrew that as Rosh Hashanah approaches we should perform the task/work of 'chesbon hanefesh', an accounting of the soul/spirit/one's character. I love the word accounting. It reminds me of the months before April 30th (or June 30th) every year when we examine all our accounts, receipts, etc. in order to file our tax returns with the government. So as R.H. approaches, we examine our thoughts, beliefs, deeds, promises kept and those broken, goals accomplished and those still remaining to be fulfilled, and our overall positive and negative impact. This process really helps us know ourselves. One cannot love what one does not 'know'. Knowing ourselves better and making resolutions to become even better and more productive helps us move toward 'self-love'. If you don't love yourself, it's very difficult to love others. So this process also moves us toward compassion and empathy/love for others."

- Rabbi Eva Goldfinger, Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, Toronto, Ont. 

"The High Holiday period is filled with beautiful and stirring Piyyutim or liturgical poems. Some of these are an acknowledgement of our collective responsibility for the moral targets that get missed in life… It would be wholly unfair for us to think that we can be accountable for all the mishaps committed in our community.  At the same time, it is a grave misunderstanding on our collective soul if as individuals we absolve ourselves from attempting to change this reality in some significant manner… Each one of us has the capacity to change. And on these sacred days of the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) there is a sense of urgency."

- Rabbi Kliel Rose, Congregation Etz Chayim, Winnipeg, Man.

"Rosh Hashanah is a time of deep inner reflection even as we prepare to be with family and friends we may not have seen for some time. We turn to those in our lives and ensure all is well, and in doing so, we also check in with ourselves. How am I doing? Where did my pathway take me last year — and where am I headed this year? When could I have been more generous, more truthful, less self-centred? When might I have chosen to encounter something new — but didn't? All these questions are reflections that we then need to bring into that larger skin we share, our community. Judaism is a commitment dedicated to strengthening the roots of a strong and sustainable human community. We are reminded every day, every week, that we live in this world — and at our New Year, only more so." 

- Rabbi Lynn Greenhough, Kolot Mayim Reform Temple, Victoria, B.C.

"There is a Jewish teaching that says: every person should carry a note in each pocket. In one pocket, the note should read, 'I am dust and ashes.' In the other pocket, the note should read, 'The world was created for me.' On the Jewish New Year, we hover between humility and confidence. On the one hand, we acknowledge our smallness in the face of the Divine, in the context of our world, and in the vast expanse of history. On the other hand, we know we each have unique gifts, and a role to play in the drama of our own lives and those of our families and communities."

- Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, Westmount, Que.

"These Holy Days are heavy with inner "work", but they also represent an opportunity to do better, to become a better person and to look, not just to the past, but to the future as well. Judaism is a religion which, at its core, seeks justice. As we each seek our own personal justice, our burden is hopefully lightened."

- Linda Epstein, Congregation Shir Chadash, Saskatoon, Sask.

"A privilege of being part of the human family is that not only can we hear but we also can listen to one another. The dual acts of listening and hearing are woven through the liturgy of our High Holy Days. They are most profoundly introduced through the shofar, the ram's horn. 

It is hard to ignore a shofar blast. The piercing sound of the shofar forces us to stop and listen to it. It is supposed to be clear, simple and obvious. The shofar reaches our ears like an alarm clock following a long slumber. It is an alarm clock where we can't press snooze and just turn off and go back to sleep. The shofar tells us there is another way. But it takes work."

- Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, Beth Tzedec Congregation, Toronto, Ont.

"For me, the true meaning of Rosh Hashanah is us coming before Hashem as children would come to their father or mother. The beauty of the hearing the Shofar's sounds is that we don't need to articulate in words what it is that we really want or need. When a baby cries at night, its mother knows to discern exactly what it needs! The sound of the Shofar... is how G-d truly deciphers what we want and, more importantly, need!"

- Rabbi Yosef Goldman, Sgoolai Israel Synagogue, Fredericton, N.B.

On reflection — where, when and how to start

"We can ask ourselves and each other: When do you feel powerful? When do you feel diminished? When are you so sure of yourself, that you need a dose of humility? When do you need a reminder that you count, that you deeply impact those around you? These are questions that even young children can answer. ("When do you feel big? When do you feel small?") To hover between humility and confidence is to feel empowered, without letting the ego take over. This helps us to be ready to greet the New Year."

- Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, Westmount, Que.

"God gave us a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear. We are fond of saying, "and the rest is commentary." I suggest that the rest is doing the work. Chop wood, draw water. Make soup. Visit elders. Take care of your family. Share your wealth, whatever you have. Do Judaism. Stop running around, shopping, working. Find some quiet. Every day. Allow yourself to stop being busy. And listen. Talk with others about their journey, and yours. Are there ways you can help each other?"

- Rabbi Lynn Greenhough, Kolot Mayim Reform Temple, Victoria, B.C.

"The best thing we can do each year is to take the process seriously, and that can look many different ways. Just sitting in services isn't the key, we have to be active: Think about what we want to change, write it down, apologize. Listen to the shofar and let it open up your heart. Believe that we are capable of change. Reflect with friends and family. It's hard work, but it's worth it. If this process of reflection is new, I would suggest starting slow. Pick a few questions to reflect on: What are five things I'm proud of this year? What is one thing I want to do differently this year? Is there someone who I owe an apology?"

- Rabbi Becca Walker, Beth David B'nai Israel Beth Am, Toronto, Ont.

"Rosh Hashanah is about a deep accounting of the self: where have I strayed from the right path? How can I be a better human being altogether? Where is my soul at? As a congregational Rabbi, I think the community is the best place and time for these reflections… No one can really help us "stick" to the accounting we have made because a change of heart can only come from deep within. But in our consumerist and individualistic society, where the "self" reigns supreme, it is good — even counterculture — to have a community to measure oneself against and with."

- Rabbi Dr. Elyse Goldstein, City Shul, Toronto, Ont.  

"I think when people reflect on their past year, they tend to focus too much on self-criticism. Of course, there is a place for it, but I think the primary focus should be self-introspection — if you have been using your strengths the best way possible. Many of us don't even know about our strengths and unique abilities. A great 'life hack', is to ask your close friends. It could be an awkward question, but you'd be surprised what you hear from them! It's funny how sometimes our friends can see that special factor in us quicker and more refined than we could ourselves. Discover a strength that you have and ask yourself if you have used that to the best of your ability. Make a resolution to ensure that you do so more the coming year compared to the year passed. Focus on treating people better. What can you do to be a better spouse, friend and community member?"

- Rabbi Zolly Claman, Beth Israel Synagogue, Edmonton, Alta.

"The shofar's message is clear. We must listen to what is unheard. For this New Year, take ten minutes every day to listen to the sounds around you. Listen to the sounds of nature. And when you can, try to really hear what people are saying to you. Practice makes perfect. Try for ten minutes every day."

- Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, Beth Tzedec Congregation, Toronto, Ont.

On how to turn reflection into meaningful resolutions — and make them stick

"The key is to start small. Really small. Here is the rule of thumb: the slower the change happens, the longer it will last. It's the same as heat capacity for metals, the quicker it heats up the quicker it cools down! Just start slow and be really patient. Greet people with a smile one time every morning, once a week stop everything (even electronics!) and just listen to a loved one express themselves, spend quality time with your kid once a week. Also, just choose one. Find something you're good at, make one really small resolution that you really could keep. Don't be shy about using Mr. Google for help. Put a daily reminder within your calendar reminding you of your resolution. It will pop up every day and that will remind you."

- Rabbi Zolly Claman, Beth Israel Synagogue, Edmonton, Alta.

"I always tell people to 'just do it' — call the person you have hurt and reach out. Ten people in ten days. Practice saying "I'm sorry" once a day for ten days. Count your blessings ten times a day for ten days to inculcate gratefulness and awareness. Choose ten reflective questions and ask yourself one each day. Use this time which Judaism has given you not for buying stuff but for amassing qualities. And then, when you hear the shofar, think of it as an alarm clock to wake up your better self!"

- Rabbi Dr. Elyse Goldstein, City Shul, Toronto, Ont.  

"The mistake people often make in this process of self-reflection or accounting is they just make a list of resolutions. I recommend creating a table with lots of rows and at least the following columns. When all eight columns are completed, then do an assessment of the entire list and fill in the last column. I find that when the entire table is complete, many resolutions will be deleted or put way down on the list, because the level of importance is reassessed and better understood.

For measures use a scale of 1-10 with 1 being lowest level..."

Resolutions

How urgent or important is it to me (and why)

 

How difficult is it to accomplish (time, $, knowledge…)

 

Who or what can help me to accomplish it

Level of actual benefit to me and my life

Level of actual benefit to the people I care about

How will it positively affect society and our world

How will it negatively affect society and our world

Order in which I'll work on these resolutions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

- Rabbi Eva Goldfinger, Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, Toronto, Ont. 

"When summer turns to fall, I return to a bit of wisdom that never lets me down: When all else fails… make a list… I compose a list of my faults, the people I've hurt, those character traits which could stand some improvement (or complete transformation!), the myriad ways I've let down God, my friends and family, myself. It's written with an old-fashioned pen on an actual piece of paper, and I carry this list with me at all times during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The list pokes and prods me to write, phone, or speak in person to those I've hurt, and accompanies me during the long prayer services. After Yom Kippur is over, I place the list in an envelope that I keep on my desk, right in front of me — a concrete, physical "witness for the prosecution" in my annual effort to "do teshuvah," that is, to return the very best version of myself, to restore and renew my relationships."

- Rabbi Adam Rubin, Beth Tikvah Congregation, Richmond, B.C.

"As with all things involving resolutions, don't have too many, don't try to change everything. Make change or develop new habits in a manner that is gradual and sustainable. One day at a time. Many diets, or exercise programmes emphasize building the suggested programme into our daily life for thirty days — and then, by thirty days it has become more sub-conscious than conscious behaviour. Find a way to build that resolution into the rhythm of your life."

- Rabbi Lynn Greenhough, Kolot Mayim Reform Temple, Victoria, B.C.

"There are some great resources out there to deepen this process. My favourite is the book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew. Another great resource is doyou10Q.com. This website sends out questions during the 10 days of repentance (from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur) to help reflect. You answer the questions and then the site will email them back to you right before Rosh Hashanah next year, so it is a great way to check up on your goals and see how you've done over the year and then adjust accordingly. It's really cool to see the answers from "past you" a year later. This could also be a fun activity to do with kids, either write the answers together or everyone can do their own."

- Rabbi Becca Walker, Beth David B'nai Israel Beth Am, Toronto, Ont.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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