Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? Many people do, despite the high failure rate of fulfilling those resolutions. The holiest moment in the Jewish calendar, Kol Nidre, is that moment on Yom Kippur when the cantor chants the words that release us from any vows — any neder in Hebrew — Kol Nidrei.

Nidrana la nidrei, v’esarana la esarai, our vows are not vows, the obligations we took upon ourselves are erased. Our pledges, our promises, all of them, are gone with the wind.

The Torah tells us that when a person makes a vow or takes on an obligation, it is a mitzvah to fulfill the words that come out of our mouths. (Numbers 30:3) Deuteronomy puts it more bluntly. “Whatever your lips say, take care to do it.” (Deuteronomy 23:24) Yet, just prior to that, we are warned that the way not to sin is not to make a vow altogether. It’s complicated, and there is an entire tractate in the Mishnah devoted to Nedarim, the care and feeding of the vows we make and how to nullify them.

It is for good reason that our tradition actively discourages us from making promises, knowing that human nature is such that, with all good intentions and all too often, we make commitments and then don’t follow through — for a whole host of reasons! Some have the custom of saying blee neder, that is, “without a vow,” when they make a commitment. As in, I’ll make all those phone calls before the end of the week, blee neder. I’ll try, but I’m not making any promises.

So, what are we to do with our cultural love of New Year’s resolutions?

Do we dare make commitments for the year ahead? What might they be and how will we bring them from visions and goals to reality in our lives? Fundamentally, I think we should try to make the best possible decisions daily and forgive ourselves, stand up and brush ourselves off when we fall short — and try again tomorrow.

If you can’t give up on the idea of making a New Year’s resolution, consider the four worlds in Kabbalah. Jewish mysticism suggests that we all vibrate on four levels simultaneously — the physical, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual. What if we looked at how we want to adjust our course in each of these areas?

The physical realm seems to be the priority focus of the new year, based on the number of ads for gym memberships around this time. We all know we should exercise more, eat better and sleep more. And, I might add, be more accepting of ourselves and others and the glorious diversity of our bodies.

I promise to eat more vegetables this year, blee neder.

Which leads us to the emotional level. Yes, to be more accepting of ourselves and others. More kindness and less anger. More forgiveness and less regret. More energy giving to others and causes we believe in can be a foundation for a sense of well-being in the year ahead.

Then there’s the intellectual level. Could this be the year when we read that book that’s been sitting on the nightstand? When we sign up for a class on a topic we’ve been meaning to explore? When we commit to studying the weekly Torah portion? We are, after all, the people of the book!

Remaining is the spiritual realm. Are you a person who thinks about what makes life meaningful and how you can enhance that focus in your own life? Maybe just saying Modeh Ani in the morning or Shema in the evening? Maybe saying a blessing before you eat? Maybe reminding yourself right now of your dreams and visions for yourself? Maybe committing to more gratitude and less negativity and judgment?

As we enter 2023, let’s be kind to ourselves and others and remember that we are doing the best we can. Instead of big resolutions, perhaps a humbler approach is in order. No promises, no vows, just the resolve to renew and enhance our focus on dedicating ourselves to our continued growth physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. JN

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell is the associate rabbi of Temple Chai in Phoenix.