THE GIFT I GIVE MYSELF WILL BE… by Cantor Andrew Bernard

23 Dec

As Jews, we have the advantage of experiencing many significant annual events twice: once as part of our Jewish year and once as part of the secular year. We have Sukkot and Thanksgiving, Rosh Hashanah and New Years, Memorial Day and Yom HaZikaron, Tu Bishvat and Arbor Day — to name a few. While the background and customs of these days may vary between the Jewish and secular observance, they also share some similarities that allow us to reflect on some important ideas twice each year.

New Years is a time when many people make resolutions for the coming year. They pledge to improve their physical health, to treat others more kindly or thoughtfully, or to get bad habits under control. Of course as Jews, we just went through this self-examination and self-improvement ritual a few months ago during the High Holy Days. For us, the New Years resolutions may be more of a progress report than a fresh start.

While making changes to improve our lives is a noble idea, it’s not all that easy. At this time of year, experts caution that the best way to make improvements is to start with something small and manageable, and to build on the little successes. Some of the things we want to change are pretty well ingrained. In other cases, we are often not even fully aware of some of the negative behaviors we engage in.

I’m not sure that the world is ever a really calm place, but the last few months have seemed particularly chaotic and unnerving. There has been violence and injustice. People have succumbed to fear and bigotry. Even when there is acknowledgment that we have to make the world a safer and more compassionate place no one, it seems, can agree on the path forward.

Fear brings out the worst in people. While self-preservation is a natural and healthy instinct, fear often causes irrational and counterproductive responses. We reject those we should embrace, we blame those for whom we should show empathy, and in an effort to cope with a complex world, we declare ourselves right and insist that others are simply wrong.

Even more insidious, we make ourselves feel better about ourselves not through self-improvement but by distracting ourselves with others’ misfortunes. Reflecting the tabloid culture, some people find it much easier to point fingers at the troubles or failures of others rather than doing the more difficult work of tending to themselves. Judging another person is a lot easier than taking personal responsibility.

There are plenty of things in my own life that are good candidates for change and improvement. Some of them are easy while others are deeply rooted and a constant challenge. But one of the things I gain from facing my own shortcomings is increased empathy for the challenges of others. The impulse to judge another person is deflected by self-awareness and honesty. It also helps me see that judging myself harshly is not likely to be a healthy or productive way to bring about change. Self-improvement must often begin with showing compassion to ourselves. And if I can learn compassion for myself, it should be an easier next step for me to find compassion for others.

This is a season of gift-giving. Most people enjoy getting “stuff” but I think the gift that can bring joy and peace to our troubled world is the gift of compassion — for ourselves and for others. This gift I give to myself is not selfish but a first step to doing the work of making this world a safer and more compassionate place. May our new year bring peace — to ourselves, to each other, and to our world.

gift

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