We’ve all heard the expression before: new year, new you! The idea is that the change of digits on the calendar will be accompanied by a positive move of the needle on your existential barometer. You will take the opportunity of this annual reset to reconsider, to recalibrate, to resolve, and to repair. You will devote a bit of the time remaining in the waning year to identify the unhealthy habits and unrealized goals from the past revolution around the sun. And you will commit yourself to healthier decisions, more constructive thoughts, and more productive behaviors from the moment the shiny ball drops in Times Square.
It might be big changes that you envision, like getting off the sauce, or landing a better job. Or the commitments might be small and incremental, like walking ten minutes every other Tuesday, or flossing your teeth at least three times before you go see the dentist again. It may be vague, like spending less time on social media, or perhaps very specific, like shutting down all devices at 9 (no, make it 9:45) every night. You may focus on physical things, like getting back to those six-pack abs you had for a few weeks back in highschool. Or maybe it’s more internal exercise, like deep breathing and meditation, which will enhance the quality of your psychic wellbeing.
Introspection and resolution are good at any time of the year, and the new year is as good an excuse as any. At the time of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, we take this process very seriously. We begin a month prior with the blowing of the shofar each morning to prepare us for the upcoming Days of Awe. A week before Rosh Hashana, we gather in synagogue even earlier than usual to recite pages and pages of penitential prayers called selichot that help us focus on the inner accounting that the holiday affords us. On the day of Rosh Hashana itself, we spend the majority of our time in synagogue, praying, singing, awakening at the sound of the shofar to the divine reality to which we have been unconscious. Afterwards, we devote the first ten days of the new year to additional stocktaking, and this culminates in Yom Kippur, the most solemn and holy day of the entire annual cycle when we divorce ourselves from the material realm and attune ourselves to the unity that underlies our existence. And then a week of celebration throughout the holiday of Sukkot. By the end of Tishrei we are exhausted, and we are (hopefully) more conscious and directed than we were the year before.
All of which is to say that in Judaism, the new year is kind of a big deal. The Gregorian new year of January first is not quite as profound, but nonetheless it is an opportunity for reflection and correction. As we celebrate the annual changing of the date with the rest of the planet, we might as well take advantage of its potential for positive growth.
To do so, though, it would be worth taking a lesson from this process we engaged in a few months ago in Tishrei. That process is generally referred to as “teshuvah.” Commonly translated as “repentance,” the teshuvah process that we undertook at the Jewish new year is far more than a few moments of self-analysis and a few platitudes of resolution. It is a wholesale reassessment of our being and a thorough reimagining of our future.
Significantly, teshuvah is not about a “new you” at all. Its literal translation is “return,” and therefore it teaches us a strikingly profound lesson about how we can assure that the year ahead will be significantly better than the year(s) past. While new years eves have come and gone – while balls have dropped, corks have popped, and resolutions have been declared and soon forgotten – one thing has remained constant and immutable: your soul, the truth and essence of your being.
The crux of teshuva is not becoming something new and better than what you have been, but rather “returning” to the purity and perfection of what you ultimately are. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes in Tanya, you are a “nitzotz Elokus/spark of God” that has been embedded in a physical body (Igeres Hakodesh, Igeres 4). We, and every component of our physical universe, are fragments of God that have been hidden within a material exterior in order to create a realm of seeming multiplicity. Our task is to unwrap ourselves to reveal and reunite all of pieces of God that have been temporarily concealed and disassociated.
New Year’s Resolutions from the past have failed because we are perpetually patching the surface rather than addressing the source and core beneath. Working out, losing weight, drinking less, reading more, devoting more focus and attention to our loved ones – all of these are positive propositions and worthy goals for 2023. But most of them will likely be short-lived, and we will find ourselves committing to them again in 365 days. Even if this year we do have the conviction and will-power to finally make appreciable changes to our physique, our health, or our relationships, none of these will fill the existential void that nags at all of us and makes the passage of time disconcerting no matter how many cocktails we guzzle and how many fireworks we launch colorfully into the dark December 31st sky.
This year, perhaps we can make a different type of resolution. Rather than “new year, new you,” let’s make it “new year, TRUE you.” Rather than trying to become something different or something better than what we tend to be, we can commit to delving inward to understand what we essentially are and what we have always been. The modern world offers us plenty of easily accessible opportunities for this type of genuine self-exploration: dynamic outreach rabbis in all major (and many minor) cities throughout the world; spectacular websites that post daily content for the Torah curious; a wealth of books and periodicals that not only translate Torah’s deepest works and concepts, but bring them down to earth in a way that they are accessible to even the uninitiated seeker (feel free to contact me if you need help finding any of the above).
What we will find if we resolve to genuinely explore our TRUE YOU in 2023 is that we are fragments of infinity, we are – all of us – pieces of one gorgeous jigsaw puzzle, and we are already far greater than we ever imagined.