Put Jewish Ideas to Use on the Secular New Year

Most people don’t realize that through its choice of words, the Old Testament places emphasis on goal setting. In fact, it seems that God expects us to set targets for ourselves and at least to try to hit them. In other words, we are supposed to take the time to come up with resolutions or intentions for ourselves.  While Jews often think about this on the Jewish New year, or Rosh Hashanah, it’s appropriate to think about the secular New Year from a Jewish perspective as well…at least if you are Jewish. Even if you are not, if you want to approach the secular New Year from an “Old Testament perspective,” you can do so with the following thoughts in mind.

No matter our religious orientation – or lack thereof, we can all learn something from the use of the world “sin” in the Old Testament and in Jewish liturgy. Let me explain why. The word for sin in Hebrew – chet – comes from the sport of archery. Hebrew has no real word for sin as we understand it. One or two other words refer to what we think of as sin, but none actually mean “sin” per se. The words al chet, usually translated as “the sin” and commonly used during the Jewish High Holy Days, which including both Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Repentance (Yom Kippur), really means “the missed mark.” In archery terms, this would refer to missing the target or not hitting the bull’s eye.

Interestingly, the word Torah, which refers to the Old Testament scrolls and the text they contain, also comes from archery. It means to take aim. Thus, the Old Testament teaches us to take aim, but sometimes we take aim and miss the mark, which in Judaism – and from a spiritual persective – is considered a serious enough offense to be called a “sin.”

Why do the Old Testament, Hebrew and Judaism use archery terminology for such important words as sin and Torah?  And why are these words associated with taking aim and hitting or missing targets? After all, sins are not something to be taken lightly, and the Torah is the sacred text of Judaism. The reason lies in the analogy between an archer missing his mark and a person repenting for wrongs committed.

Archery involves setting up targets in the middle of which are the bull’s eyes at which the archer aims his arrows. To hit the “mark,” archers must practice their aim until they become good enough to hit not only the target but the bull’s eye. On the Day of Repentance, Jews look at the past 12 months of their lives to see what targets they set up for themselves, how they practiced hitting that target and if their aim was true. We do the same thing, of course, on the secular New Year. Welook at the target to see if we managed to hit the bull’s eye. During this period of introspection we notice not only if we aimed our arrows and shot, but if we even got close to our mark. During the High Holy Days, the period between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur provides a time to set up new targets – or to reexamine or study old targets – and to commit to practicing our aim. It’s also a time to set the intention – kavanah (another word that, while not related to archery, also means “to aim”) – to try harder to shoot true – to hit the bulls eye this year. On December 31st, New Year’s Eve, we have just one night when most people take a moment…or an hour…or even the better part of a day to pause and consider the past year and if their aim was true, if they need to reset their targets, and at which targets they need to spend more time practicing their aim.

Thus, we see that the Jewish New Year’s practice may come out of the Jewish tradition but is relevant for anyone from any religious background. And we can see clearly why archery terms are used to describe sin. God appears to be telling us that the sin comes in not setting goals for ourselves and in not trying to achieve them. At a minimum we have to set up a target, try to take aim, practice shooting that arrow, and then let it fly. We have to attempt to hit our mark. The sin lies not in simply missing the mark but in not trying to hit it at all. If we can sincerely say that we tried to hit the target – we aimed, we practiced our shooting, we shot, and we still didn’t get a bull’s eye, God forgives us. At least, that’s what we are told on Yom Kippur.

The importance of actually setting New Year’s resolutions or goals can be found in the answer to this question: What would happen if we never set a target for ourselves, if we never had any goals or aspirations or resolutions?  We would never change. We would never move forward.  We would never achieve personal growth. We would never accomplish anything. We would not fulfill our human potential or live our lives fully.  That truly constitutes a sin.

Our goals and resolutions give us something to move towards – something quantifiable. And the New Year – either secular or Jewish – provides the perfect time to turn over a new leaf, begin again, think about what we want to change or accomplish, how we want to grow, to set up those new targets so we can reach our full human potential and live our lives fully.

(If you are interested in a workbook about setting resolutions – or targets – based on these principles that can be used for either the secular New Year or the Jewish New Year,  please click here.)

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