Of all the popular secular rituals that sometimes enrich (Thanksgiving family meals) and sometimes degrade (Halloween vandalism) our public life, my favorite is the custom of making resolutions at the end of the year.
I know that most of these resolutions are honored mostly in their abandonment and yet I still think they are a spiritually uplifting thing to do.
There does seem to be some evidence that making a resolution has some measurable statistical impact. Studies apparently show that those who make New Year’s resolutions are about a third more likely to fulfill them than those who make no resolutions at all. We cannot ever change unless we explicitly name the behaviors that are blocking the better angels of our nature from taking wing. Twelve step programs owe much of their success in weaning people off drugs and alcohol to this process of explicitly naming our defects and the people we have harmed by giving into them.
I would love for you, dear readers, to send me some of your New Year’s resolutions so that I can share them. Try to include some resolutions that go beyond the important but well-worn resolutions of trying to lose weight, exercise more, and stop smoking. The best resolutions are, to my mind, those that shine a light on the little known, infrequently examined weak spots in your behaviors. Making changes in little things can give spiritual energy to the big changes we all need to be about.
So here is my partial list for 2021. Some, I am already addressing and others require a little bit of help from above and from within...
This year I resolve to:
Give to beggars. I always try to do this even though I am well aware of the counter argument that many of the street beggars are hucksters. Even so, I know — we all know — that to humiliate oneself publicly is embarrassing and just standing out in the weather asking for help deserves some form of acknowledgment. I now have a pile of dollar bills in my car to guard against the occasions when I have had the desire to give but I had no cash on hand. If you are still worried that you are enabling a drug habit, buy some fast-food meal coupons and hand them out to the beggars you meet along your way. Giving to beggars keeps your heart soft. The rabbis who began rabbinic Judaism taught that when the Messiah comes (I guess Christian readers can substitute, “When the Messiah comes again.”) he will appear as a beggar at the gates of Rome, and when someone gives to him and bandages his wounds, he will announce himself. In case they got the city wrong and really meant to say Boca Raton, I want to be ready. I don’t want to be the one who keeps the Messiah away because I am not carrying cash.
Curse less. Language is so powerful we must resolve to use the highest and purest form of language we know. Cursing is lazy talk. Cursing is angry talk. Cursing is not the way we should be using our words. I don’t curse that much but I curse too much for my liking. Recently, when I wanted to describe someone or some group that is tearing our country apart with acrimony and prejudice cloaked in conspiratorial theories and political diatribes from both the right and the left, I have become enamored with the phrase to describe them, “They are bat-shit crazy!” I am not sure there is a satisfying clean language alternative, but I am seeking one. Perhaps in the year ahead I will call the nut cases in our midst, “pathologically deluded.” That phrase does not roll off the tongue with the power and ease of “bat-shit crazy,” so I am still searching. I just want to curse less, and I want to understand more.
Take the vaccine. These miracle drugs will save us, but we need to be willing to be saved. Most folks I know are thrilled and anxious to get the shots, but there remains a sizable number of people who have decided, or who will decide, to wait and see. For any new medicine that is generally good advice, but these vaccines are, according to very smart doctors and researchers, overwhelmingly safe and effective. Also, we need to get roughly 80 percent of our population vaccinated in order to achieve what the scientists call, “herd immunity,” which is the percentage needed to make us all safe, even if a few people still are not immunized. So, taking the vaccine helps you and helps all of your fellow Americans. It is a win, win, win, win.
May God grant us all a Good New Year. Asking for a Great New Year seems selfish to me. Good is enough right now.
Send questions and comments to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.