I am not sure that I would place breaking a New Year’s resolution on the same plateau as breaking an oath that the Torah cautions us against (see Numbers 30:2). However, I do think it is disappointing that so many people today take making New Year’s resolutions so cavalierly. As each Gregorian New Year begins, we make promises to ourselves about what we are going to do to make this a better year. We “promise” that this will be the year that we go to the gym and lose weight, or that we are spend more time with our family, knowing all along that it is an uphill battle.
As I was reading through the story of Yetziyat Mitzrayim, the Exodus, which we will be reading in synagogue over the coming weeks, it occurred to me that for those of us who may be seriously trying to keep a New Year’s resolution this year that the Torah gives us a fantastic toolbox of ideas for how we might better keep our resolutions. The Torah tells us that In the first month of the year (in the Torah and until Talmudic times, it was unclear whether or not Nissan, when the Exodus took place, or Tishrei, when the world was created, was the beginning of the New Year), that God also resolved to do something important: to take the Children of Israel out of Egypt. And then God, in a strange departure from what we are accustomed to today, fulfills that resolution by leading the Children of Israel into the desert and 40 years later brings them into the Promised Land.
Where did God go right? And what can we learn from what God did to help us fulfill our resolutions? Here are four tips:
1. Build up to the resolution. When God states God’s promise to Moses to take the Israelites to the Promised Land in Exodus, it was something that had been in the works for a long time. God made promises regarding the Exodus and our inheritance of the Promised Land to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob long before the Exodus ever happened. This teaches us that resolutions made in the “heat of the moment” have little chance of success: If you want to commit to attending minyan (prayer quorum) every day, then you probably should first have committed to going regularly on Shabbat. And if you make a resolution like “I am going to lose weight this year,” but you haven’t started to integrate fruits or vegetables into your diet, you will have little chance of success.
2. Wait for the right moment. Remember, God waited 400 years to take the Israelites out of slavery, and not a moment sooner. Most of us are not so lucky to have that much time. However, what this teaches us is that we shouldn’t make resolutions when it’s not the right time in your life to be able to fulfill them. I have a six-month-old baby at home, and somehow I have a feeling that a resolution to keep my home clean this year would remain elusive. Instead, I’ve resolved to spend more time with my family: which is easy to do when you have an adorable baby at home!
3. Go all in. The less commitment you have to your resolution, the less likely you are to keep it. When God took the Israelites out of Egypt, God did so with no less than “a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” This is the Torah’s way of teaching us that God doubled down on the Exodus. If you aren’t willing to go all in on your resolutions, you probably won’t do them.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and work in partnership with others to meet your goals. God could only take the Israelites out of Egypt by finding wonderful spokespeople in Moshe and Aaron. Finding partners with technical expertise will make it easier to fulfill your resolution. If your goal is to find time to study Torah regularly, find a hevruta (study partner) so that you can keep each other on your toes. And if you know you can’t lose weight or get into shape on your own, hire a personal trainer to plan your workout.
There is a pious custom that when Jews make a promise, we end that promise with the words bli neder, which is a kind of disclaimer that means “but it’s not really a promise,” even if we really do intend to keep it. This is because our rabbinic sages were tremendously concerned about not only the moral, but religious implications for failing to keep our promises. The rabbis believed not only in keeping our promises because we were living under a social contract, but because to break one’s promise to oneself or to a fellow human being was problematic for God, who, since the time of the Exodus, had a developed a rich reputation for keeping God’s promises to us.
And so, this year, let’s make one resolution we can all agree on: to take our resolutions/promises more seriously, and, by doing so, improve ourselves, our relationship with God, and the world for others around us.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. You can follow him on twitter @danieldorsch.