"We have spoken slander; we have acted presumptuously; we have practiced deceit."
Each year we beat our chest and resolve to change. And each year, we make promises to ourselves: I'm going to lose weight. I'm going to stop gossiping. I'm going to learn to play the piano.
Yet long before Chanukah rolls around, the resolve has dissipated. With all our good intentions, we never quite manage to change.
"Unless you hit a crisis ... most people don't change their lives," psychotherapist Yona Kollin said. Her husband, Gilbert Kollin, rabbi emeritus of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, said that while the High Holidays provide a helpful mechanism for making positive changes in our lives, most congregants who attend services "aren't necessarily there for resolutions."
For those truly committed to making changes, he said, the High Holidays can facilitate that process as they are designed to take us through a process of self-assessment.
"You ask yourself, 'What am I going to do in the year ahead better than in the year prior?' It's like a business plan," Gilbert Kollin said. "Imagine you're in bankruptcy court. You're filing a moral Chapter 11 and saying to God, 'This business is bust. But give me a year.' And God says, 'Show me a plan.'"
Spiritual preparation for the High Holidays actually begins a month prior to Rosh Hashanah, during the month of Elul. During that time, we are encouraged to take stock of the past year, pinpointing our strengths and weaknesses, examining the impact of our deeds and clarifying our goals. Teshuva (returning to the desirable path) involves three steps: Regretting our misdeeds, confessing them and committing not to repeat them.
It's not necessarily an easy process, but as Yona Kollin notes, real change requires effort. "In cognitive therapy, you think about what you want to do and practice it over and over until it becomes automatic," she said. "It won't happen without practice."
"It's what Heschel called 'a leap of action.' You become what you do," her husband added. The High Holidays "hopefully give an opportunity to focus on whether your actions represent your thoughts," he said. "If you find dissonance, you have to determine what you want to do and what actions you need to take in order to get there." Having the thoughts without taking the actions, he said, will only lead to feelings of frustration and inadequacy.
Both Jewish practice and psychological theory prescribe similar formulas for making change: Identify the goal, identify the steps needed to reach the goal and put your intentions into action. Repeat as necessary. Make goals specific, and focus on just a few.
But why even bother trying to change the very habits that we already know we'll be seeking forgiveness for next year? After all, the Machzor (High Holiday prayer book) lists a whole host of sins we're destined to commit.
"God doesn't expect us to be perfect," Gilbert Kollin said. "God has the role of judge, but also the role of parent ... who might not demand an 'A' so much as an honest effort," he said. "We know we're not going to be perfect, but the question is: Can we do better?"