One need not be an observant Jew to appreciate the tradition of working to improve oneself in anticipation of the new year. Even the secular world widely celebrates the New Year on January 1, as a public holiday in which many people make new year’s resolutions to improve their lives. It has been my experience in life that most people are good and desire to make good decisions.
Living a moral, ethical life does not come naturally. People are born egocentric by nature. It takes years of development, hopefully by good parenting skills, fine teachers and societal influences to to refine one’s character. This development is crucial to the well being of the individual and society as a whole. Unfortunately, many people believe they are fully developed shortly after the onset of adulthood. Few people really take the time to fine-tune their character traits. Life is busy and stressful and this is a task that is emotionally taxing and time consuming. Although character development can be an uphill battle it behooves us to devote the time and energy into creating a healthier self.
Unfortunately, society, media and pop culture perpetuate the notion that focusing, pampering and worrying about ourselves will help us achieve “happiness”. This philosophy only breeds self obsession, constant pursuit of physical pleasures and a desire to be free of obligations. It is imperative to tend to ones personal needs and desires but it should be done in moderation. Just as one naturally feels the need to care for himself so too one has a nagging desire to feel whole or complete. This can not be accomplished without others. I found that giving is immeasurably helpful to my happiness and well being.
One day I was feeling down and didn’t want to leave my home. I had no choice because there were errands that had to be done. I forced myself out of the house. As I was driving I saw someone in my neighborhood tremping (hitching), so I stopped to give her a ride. She expressed gratitude to me and asked my advice on a problem she was having. After doing my best to give sound advice I dropped her off and suddenly felt immeasurably better. I had not solved my problems one iota, but I helped someone else. This lifted my spirit and changed the tone of my day. Now, when I feel myself being absorbed by negative thoughts and slipping towards depression, I refocus and ask myself what I can do for someone else. I start with a small task, like a phone call or a email to someone who can use a kind word. I find that at times returning to the true me, the good in me, I need to go outside myself. In doing for others I become larger than I was before. The small measure of peace or happiness I bring to others becomes my happiness.
People have been trained that happiness is in getting, be it a promotion, a new car, a house, a vacation, etc. Lasting happiness can not be gotten; it can only be given. We see how much joy parents get when children succeed in life. They have invested so much into their children that the child’s success, in turn becomes their success. If we put love and energy into others then we end up rooting, hoping, praying for their success. Their success ends up being ours as well.
It is no wonder that the concept “love thy neighbor as thyself” is taught as the fundamental principle of our faith. In doing so we ensure the well being of everyone. If we all look out for one another, then everyone will be taken care of.
If this summer has taught us anything, I believe it is this. In our time of crisis we have witnessed all shades of people shielding strangers from rockets, providing reprieve for the southerners, bringing food, supplies, and care packages to our soldiers etc., etc. Our nation has achieved a heightened awareness of each others needs and resulted in an outpouring of kindness that has provided a healing for our people.
I hope that in the spirit of Elul we can make a collective New Year’s resolution. It would be benefit us greatly to continue giving of ourselves to one another so that we can experience a binding sense of wholeness that will ensure our inner and outer peace.