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Why do we do things backwards?

On August 29, 2017

Why do we do things backwards?

It seems backwards, the way we Jews do the fall holidays.  First comes Rosh Hashana, where we look forward and make resolutions for the new year.  Then comes Yom Kippur, when we look back and evaluate the past year.  

This is the opposite of how we usually make plans.  Normally, we first look at what our situation is and how we got into it.  Then we decide where we want to get and, using what we’ve learned from our examination of the past, we make plans to get where we want to go without falling into the problems we identified in the past.  All the management and psychological gurus agree that this is the right way to proceed.

So, why do we do it the other way ‘round?  It isn’t completely clear how the fall holidays, which were in antiquity one long holiday, came to differentiate themselves in this particular order.  What is clear is that it seems, against all common sense and expert opinion, to have worked – if it hadn’t, the creative engine that is the Jewish experience would have changed it around.

Why does it work, then?  There are a couple of reasons.

First, self-examination is hard and sometimes unpleasant.  We don’t like to think about the times we’ve failed our values, been ashamed of ourselves, not done our best.  It takes a positive spirit and an uplifted heart to even think of tackling that.  So, we create that spirit.  We make our resolutions for the future with optimism, and that optimism allows us to look at our failings without sinking into despair.

Second, it’s easy to be trapped in old patterns of thought, old habits of behavior.  If you look at all the ways you went wrong, it’s sometimes hard to see other paths.  Looking to the future with fresh eyes, unencumbered by memories of past mistakes, failures and wrong directions, lets us see all the possibilities available.  Then, when we look back later, we can see not only where we went wrong, but what the right way might have been.

So, first we look forward with optimism.  And then, we can look back with the same optimism.  We won’t be dragged down with regret; we’ll be lifted up with a new commitment to be better people and to create a better and more beautiful world.

In the words of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.”

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