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The start of the new school year always comes with a slew of resolutions. This year, I will get enough sleep every night. This year, I will try harder in school and get better grades. This year, I won’t be stressed. This year, I’ll make more friends. This year, I won’t waste time on my phone.
Inevitably, at the end of the school year, we haven’t achieved all of these goals. And yet, with the start of the next one, we make the exact same resolutions. Why do we keep making these resolutions year after year when we know that we won’t keep them?
Ultimately, our resolutions offer perspective on the person we want to be. They create an image of the “perfect” version of ourselves that we want to attain. We want to be an organized student with good grades. We want to be popular and spend time with our friends. We want to play a musical instrument, be an athlete and be in the school play. Everyone has a unique vision of the perfect version of themselves that they want to be.
The beginning of a new school year brings a fresh canvas and the chance to start over. Maybe this year, we’ll be that perfect person.
And yet, our goals are generally the same every year – does that mean that we never achieve them? Rather, each year we take two steps forward and one step backward. However far we come, there is always further to go, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t made progress. Our repeat resolutions acknowledge that a goal is important to us, and we want to keep working on it even more than we did in the past year.
Similarly, the start of the school year correlates with the beginning of the Jewish year. During this time from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we reflect on the past year and make plans for the future. We ask forgiveness for our sins and resolve to be better in the coming year.
Making these resolutions centers us and impacts our day to day decisions, consciously or unconsciously. Knowing in the back of your head that you want to improve at playing the trumpet, you decide to spend an extra half hour practicing. Knowing you want to make more friends, you decide to go to a party at your friend’s house where you are likely to meet people. Knowing that you want to get more sleep, you decide not to join another club. Our goals are important because they remain in the back of our head the entire year impacting our choices. By declaring what we want to be, we take the first step toward achieving it.
According to the Rambam’s stages of teshuva (repentance), resolutions for the future are the fourth stage. After committing a sin, one must stop doing the sin, regret his actions, and ask forgiveness. Finally, one must resolve not to do the sin again; the ultimate teshuva is when someone is placed in a parallel situation to when they sinned, but make the correct choice this time. On Yom Kippur, we ask forgiveness for our sins and decide what kind of person we want to be in the coming year; our resolutions are an important part of this process.
Despite the importance of big-picture resolutions, smaller-scale goals can be steps along the way. If your resolution is to improve your grades, each test you have, you can aim to score a few points higher than your previous test until you are happy with your scores. If you want to improve at playing the piano, choose a piece that is slightly too hard for you now and set a due date to learn how to play it. When you achieve a small goal, you are essentially reaching the Rambam’s ultimate forgiveness – you are doing something better than you did it last time. Combining resolutions about the person you want to be with specific goals to continually improve will set you up for a successful year.