Unlike secular self-improvement guides on self- improvement, which focus on learning new skills, increasing monetary wealth and setting targets the Jewish way focuses on middot – personal characteristics. This way says that 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 your weakness is that you 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 you should do, if your weakness was that you were always late then getting to one place on time might seem like an enormous obstacle but you should try 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 just one of 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 – to work on a particular middah (the singular of middot) – is not something superficial, but if thought about seriously, and over time and with sincerity and effort worked upon, can invoke real change in 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 middah that needs working on the most does seem like a sensible way to 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 have had enough of religion, 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 who is a full time carer); those who are chronically depressed or have dementia or for whatever reason life just seems to be a bit too much. Surely Judaism should give me and these people a bit of a let our clause for the New Year?
However, having done a quick scan of Jewish law I have decided that there are two reasons for the get-out clause I and many others need not try to self- improve this year. The first is that I am ill and the Jewish law can be very lenient on those are ill (for instance if you need to use a car to go hospital, because you are ill, on the Sabbath- a day that you normally wouldn’t be able to drive – then you can). And the second reason why I believe that I and many others who are ill, who are full time carers or who are generally exhausted and life-is-too-much don’t have to try at self-improvement is because that we are already expending all our energy trying to, in whatever way, make life just a tinsy wincey better for ourselves minute-by-minute day-in-day out. Day after day I
write letters and phone doctors in the hope that I will achieve full health and this is a huge challenge. Each ill person is on a different journey and faces different challenges but they are all hard and require extreme effort. In this way surely I am along with the other exhausted-life-is-too-much people 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 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, in the spirit of self-improvement, 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. I don’t know if the visit will have any influence on whether I get better or not but as I said it didn’t cost anything and no harm done. So Sharon’s assessment on visiting a Rebbe: an alternative therapy definitely worth trying out.
PS Happy tenth English birthday to my lovely daughter Gabriella, whose Hebrew birthday is the second day of Rosh Hashanah. I don’t know if you will ever read this, but if you do you probably won’t be ten and it won’t be your birthday but I just I just want you to know that I wanted you to have a happy birthday.
PPS The Rosh Hashanah self-improvement thing is obviously a pretty hard thing to achieve many, if not most, Jewish people that I meet do not try at it. That’s because it’s hard, they think that they might fail and maybe they will. And I believe that a compassionate all-knowing god understands that.
 Shlah – Leviticus 1:18
 There are various law surrounding how you would use a car on the Sabbath if you are ill, so check them out – by speaking to a rabbi or Jewish person educated to a high level in Jewish law, if you think you will need to do this or if you’re just nosey. or Jewish person educated to a high level in Jewish law.