Understand others. Understand yourself.

What will you do better this year?

Posted on 09/24/2012
Rabbi Rick Jacobs

What will you do better this year?

I’d like to do EVERYTHING better this year. Isn’t that what overachievers are supposed to say? But trying to do everything better seems like a recipe for hardly doing anything better. Woody Allen pushed this idea to the limit when he famously quipped “My only regret in life is that I’m not somebody else.” We’d all be wise to stop well short of trying to be other people and concentrate instead on how much we can hope to be better in the coming year. Rather than make a few random resolutions for 5773, the big questions are: What should I learn to accept about myself and others? What should I try to change?

A spiritual practice requires us to ask these very questions regularly. Jewish spirituality teaches us not to accept ourselves as finished products; we are works in progress. Beyond simple personality quirks, there is much about each of us that could be better--though our efforts to improve ourselves can be excruciatingly difficult. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement in Judaism, taught that it is easier to learn the entire Babylonian Talmud than to change even one character trait. Being spiritual means working on ourselves daily so that we can more fully actualize our true spiritual natures.

Being spiritual also means being generous in spirit, not only during the Days of Awe but all days. The only thing that is harder than changing our own character flaws is to stop focusing on the faults of everyone around us. Many wise teachers have suggested that we should each possess a good size cemetery in which we can bury the faults of our friends and neighbors.

Rabbi Wolf of Zabaranz was once told that some Jews in his town had spent the whole night at a gambling table to which he responded: "Perhaps, it is their intention to accustom themselves to the habit of remaining awake all night. After they acquire this habit, they may learn to devote the whole night to holy study and divine service." Now you might ask, isn't this Rabbi Wolf naïve, if not down right foolish, to think that gamblers might end up using their gambling nights for divine service? But what if we cut people that much slack and what if they cut us the same slack? Spirituality is a life path of generosity of spirit.

Being spiritual also means spending our days trying to make the world a better place, more filled with kindness and fairness. This is the very heart of Jewish spirituality. We are called to repair this broken world. In the coming year, I want to take out my God-given tools to fix more and more of the injustice and brokenness, which cry out to us. This sacred “to do list” can never be exhausted. So as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, we need to cultivate another way of being. Called Shabbat, it is not a time to be busy doing, but rather it is a weekly block of time when we simply discover the ability to be.

In the coming year I want to discern more clearly what I must change and what I cannot change. I want to keep trying to do things better, except for the holy moments when I can learn to simply be and to let others do the same.

Balancing being and becoming, patience and impatience, silence and prophetic cries, stillness and activity, this is what I most want to do in the coming year.


Rabbi Rick Jacobs is president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in North America.  Rabbi Jacobs is also an Ask Big Questions monthly blogger.