Unlike secular self-improvement guides which offer many generic statements such as ‘believe in yourself’ and ‘set achievable goals’, the Jewish take on self- improvement says that each individual has a different way to improve and each person must find that way themselves. This Jewish way focuses on middot – personal characteristics. Thus to improve ourselves firstly we must become aware of who we are, our strengths and our weaknesses. We all have good traits such as being generous or hospitable. But to improve we must focus on our weaknesses. If our weakness is that we are impatient, it would take a lot of energy and effort to try to be even a tiny weeny bit less impatient, but that’s what we should do, if your weakness was that you were always late then getting to one place on time might seem like an obstacle to large to overcome but you should really try and do it. You won’t earn more money for making this sort of change but in Jewish terms you have achieved something absolutely huge and it is even said that perfecting these character traits is the reason for the existence of humankind.
In Jewish tradition there is no better time to focus on middot than Rosh Hashana – the Jewish New Year (which falls next Thursday and Friday). Thus, in Judaism, a new year’s resolution is not something superficial, but a task that you have thought about seriously, and that if done effectively, will mean that you grow spiritually as a person.
In theory I think this this method of self-improvement sounds great – self-depreciation is all too easy but then so is keeping to the same behaviour patterns year after year – so picking on the one middot that needs working on the most does seem like a way to actually improve yourself. However, this year I have decided to take a break and not make any effort in improving myself at all (not that I did very well at it before). I have decided that I am too ill to make such changes. I think I do quite well to get out of bed, get my children to school in clean clothes, give them some sort of dinner and get them to bed (in a completely chaotic sort of way). If I tried to give myself any other target I would surely fail, so what’s the point? This isn’t because I am too lazy or apathetic, it’s just that I’m too exhausted. I don’t have the energy to self-improve. And looking around I can see that there are other people that might feel the same way as me – those living with cancer (and their spouse/ 24×7 carer); people who hear voices in their head, or who are chronically depressed or for whatever reason life just seems to be a bit too much, surely Judaism should give them a bit of a let our clause for the New Year?
However I have decided that even though I am going to take a step back this year there are two arguments that still say that I am sitting in the Jewish model of what you are supposed to do at the New Year. The first is that I am ill therefore I don’t need to perform all the commandments – even the important ones. I can only do what I am capable of and right now and I am simply not capable of this type self-improvement (I know a lot of perfectly well people will probably feel this way as well) and that’s OK because G-d has compassion. And the second position is that I am trying to improve myself – more than a lot of so-called ‘well’ people. Day after day I write letters and phone doctors in the Hope that I will achieve full health and this is a huge challenge, as illness is for any unwell person. In this way surely I am surely acting in the best of Jewish traditions of self-improvement – of meeting an internal struggle straight on and day-by-day trying very slowly but steadily to overcome it.
I’m really up for any crack pot idea if I think it will help me get better. You name it, I’ve tried it – hair analysis, drama therapy, sacro-cranial therapy, cognitive analytical therapy and soon a new diet. This week someone who I very much respect suggested that I went for some free alternative therapy which involved a very limited time commitment I was very much up for it and so this week I went to see a Very Important Rebbe. For those of you that don’t know a Rebbe is a rabbi who has had a job promotion – he’s a rabbi and then some. People seek a Rebbe’s advice because he’s on a higher spiritual plane than us mere mortals. And I have to say, I was impressed with my visit. The Rebbe listened very carefully to what I had to say, gave me a blessing and a short regular task to carry out. I actually thought the task was a lot more useful than the many tasks that cognitive therapists have suggested over the years and I truly felt blessed from his very sincere and heartfelt blessing. So Sharon’s assessment on visiting a Rebbe – an alternative therapy definitely worth trying out.
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