Rosh Hashanah 5784: Be The Best Me
Why are children so enthralled with the idea of the Cinderella story? The makeover drama, from ugly duckling to beautiful swan, has also captivated modern audiences, more recently being picked up in movies and reality TV. The idea of being able to become someone different and someone better has only grown in popularity.
We all want to jump start our lives, not just our appearance, yet we feel we are handicapped by our deficiencies. Yet deep down we realize we are trapped in a box of our own making, and we don’t believe in ourselves. Instead of creating positive change, as the High Holiday season approach, we focus on what is wrong with us, thinking that we will be motivated to improve by doing so. If I clop on my chest enough times and hard enough, I will feel bad enough and then change for the better—like a parent who thinks criticizing a child will help them change.
What if I told you that is not what we are supposed to be doing? It is true that Yom Kippur involves some heart clopping, and may receive top rank as the Super Bowl of Jewish holidays (right after Passover seder because food trumps all). Still, Rosh Hashanah is what sets the tone as it launches the holiday season and our course for the New Year. And this is very fitting because the introspection of Rosh Hashanah starts us off with a different mindset from Yom Kippur. Rabbi Abraham Isaak Kook, the first Rabbi of pre-State Israel wrote a confession prayer where we list the positive things we did rather than our mistakes, faults and wrong-doings. This is in line with Rosh Hashana being the day of envisioning our dreams and our new selves, of letting ourselves out of that box!
The different attitudes of these two holidays are reflected in two modern schools of psychology. This field has been dominated by the traditional approach of addressing neuroses and dysfunctionality, the problems in people's lives, with the belief that doing so will relieve them of these ailments. However, beginning in the 1980s, there was an awareness that focusing on people's problems could be counter-productive. Psychologists such as Abraham Maslow and Martin Seligman advocated a new approach called positive psychology: identifying and nurturing the positive within us. They advocated that by appreciating our strengths and directing ourselves towards the good in our lives, we can improve the quality of our life experiences and bring out our inherent goodness.
These two divergent outlooks can also characterize the difference between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the anniversary of the creation of the world and our ability to envision new realities for ourselves, focusing on the positive, as opposed to Yom Kippur, when we deal with our mistakes. After we blow the shofar, we cry out, "Today is the birth of the world." The Slonamer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezofsky (1911-2000), in his inspiring work, the Nesivos Shalom, tells us that this creation experience recurs every year. Therefore, Rosh Hashana is an auspicious time for our ability to re-create ourselves on this day. We do that by re-envisioning who we are.
What if I had a magic wand (think fairy godmother) and could turn myself into whatever I wanted? What would that best version of myself look like? Some ways to clarify the question is by asking what are our strengths are and how we can use them to give to others? When do I feel most fulfilled, and if I knew I could not fail, what would I undertake to accomplish in life? We often do not allow ourselves to ask these questions because we feel the answers are unattainable. But many of us have within us that company we dream of starting, the book we want to write, or that personal growth goal on our list of resolutions. We want to be more empathetic, patient and understanding, we want to be a better friend, sibling or child.
This year, let's let ourselves dream that impossible dream!
There is a further benefit to this practice. Rabbi Yitzhak in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a) says that on Rosh Hashanah, we are judged according to who we are on that day. The Almighty looks not at our shortcomings of the past year but at the better me I want to become. How do we then actualize that ideal? The first task is to visualize my new self, what my life could me, how I would behave and how much happier and fulfilled I would be. The next steps of bringing that reality into my life is the work we will do for Yom Kippur; Stay tuned for our next article, where we will talk about how to bring our dreams into reality. But first let’s identify that new me, and make Rosh Hashanah a day of new beginnings.