For many people, New Year’s Day is a time to start over, a time for a “new you.” Wharton professor Katherine Milkman termed the motivation that the new calendar year inspires in many people the “fresh start effect.”
In explaining the mindset behind it on Freakonomics Radio, Milkman argued that we dissociate our selves from last year’s failures – “Those are not me. That’s old me. That’s not new me. New me isn’t going to make these mistakes.”
Her formulation is reminiscent of Maimonides’ language in his Laws of Repentance, where he writes that part of the change process requires a symbolic name change, as if to say, “I am a different person and not the same one who sinned.”
Milkman and her colleagues hypothesized that this dissociation with our past selves is not just confined to New Year’s Day. They believed other temporal landmarks throughout the calendar year also sparked improved behavior.
To test their theory, they downloaded eight years’ worth of Google searches for the word “diet” and found that people search “diet” more at the outset of a new week, month, year, and semester and after a birthday or holiday. They found similar results in investigating when people go to the gym – there is a boost in attendance after these opportunities for a fresh start.
From a Jewish calendrical perspective, Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Repentance, and Yom Kippur embody a fresh start perspective with change embedded in the framework of the new year. (The month we are in, Nissan, is also viewed as a new year in several important ways.)
However, to constrain change and fresh starts to just one time of year is severely limiting. Each new month also presents an opportunity for transformation. This is highlighted by Rosh Chodesh celebrations and is especially pertinent for those who have the custom to fast and repent the day before each new month (known as Yom Kippur Katan).
But the opportunities aren’t even limited to new months. Parshat Tzav begins with the laws of the burnt offering. An essential part of the sacrificial process was the priest ceremoniously separating the ashes of the previous day’s sacrifice and removing them from the camp (Vayikra 6:4). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that this act signifies that every day is a fresh start, calling us “to go to our mission with full new devotion and sacrifice.”
One application of this symbolism, Rabbi Hirsch asserts, is not being complacent with yesterday’s accomplishment; we should start fresh with the same energy despite the somewhat repetitive nature of existence.
Perhaps we can suggest another message in this practice. Despite yesterday’s “burnt” parts, we are called on each day to start afresh. We are called on to remove yesterday’s shortcomings and start from scratch today. While new years, months, and weeks provide an opportunity for reflection, the truth is, every day does as well. The imperative to repent and improve is operative all year long, not just during the High Holidays.
Looking for temporal landmarks on the calendar to give us motivation to change is important. But we don’t have to wait for the first of the year, the first of the month, or next Monday to start improving. Every day can be a fresh start.