10 Prayers for the New Year

We all need a little inspiration as we approach the New Year. Following is a series of short prayers based on Jewish wisdom and tradition.

1. Looking Backward and Forward: The name January comes from the Roman god “Janus.” He had two faces so he could look forward and backward at the same time. Eternal God, help us to know this truth. We can look back, and in so doing, we can help create the way forward. The past need not hold us back. It can lead us ahead.

2. Unwrap the Gift: Eternal God, You gave us the greatest gift: the gift of life. In the coming year, help us use it wisely. May we grow in generosity, kindness and forgiveness, hope, faith and love. Amen.

3. Beginnings are blessings: Eternal God, bless this new beginning with an extra spirit of your strength, so that we may turn our days into blessings of your name. Amen.

4. Possibilities: To begin again is not a dream. It is an everlasting possibility. God, help us to grab hold of it and make it real in the coming year. Amen

5. The Book of Life: A new year is a new page in the book of our lives. May we write with color, wisdom and humility. And may your grace fall upon it consistently and unceasingly. Amen. (The ultimate prayer for many Christians is the Lord’s prayer. I offer a new understanding of it in this excerpt from my upcoming book.)

6. Waiting for Us: The good we missed last year waits for us still. Eternal God, give us the eyes to see it, the ears to hear and the heart to find it. Amen

7. Strength: God, we do not ask for a life of ease and comfort. We simply ask to be uncomplaining and unafraid. May you give us that strength for the New Year.

8. The Possibility for Change: The Hebrew word for “year” also means “change.” Change is a possibility for each us. May we embrace that possibility for change within ourselves, change within our families, change within our communities, and change within our world.

9. Change is inevitable: Growth is not. It depends on our will, our hopes, our dreams. And it rests on Your Grace. Give us an extra portion of it, so that we may fill the New Year with your Presence. Amen

10. Presence: The greatest gift we can give to others and You can give to us, Oh God, is Presence. May we be present for others during the coming year, and may You bless us with Your presence at every moment. Amen.

What is Your Prayer for the New Year? (The ultimate prayer for many Christians is the Lord’s prayer. I offer a new understanding of it, unpacking its Jewish context, in this excerpt from my upcoming book.)

The Spiritual Magic of Tidying Up

One of the world’s best-selling books this year is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Aside from the clever title, it struck a chord in our psyche. We have too much stuff.

Yet we resist parting with it. We struggle for ways to “tidy up.”

Sadly, reading about this book didn’t help me do so. It did, however, help me understand a difficult part of the Bible.

The Greatest Eulogy Since Gettsyburg

Delivering eulogies is amongst the most difficult and important work rabbis and pastors do. They grapple with death and try to make sense of life. They give strength to our spirits when we need it most.

I have given some tough ones, but none as powerful and transformative as the one below. This eulogy—delivered by Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn—was described by a US Congressman as “second only to the Gettysburg Address of President Lincoln as a stirring ode to the principles of democracy that are the bedrock of this country.”

Rabbi Gittelsohn was the first Jewish Marine chaplain. He fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. The battle ended on March 26, 1945, almost exactly 70 years ago. Rabbi Gittelsohn spoke at a memorial services for its fallen soldiers. His words helped remind survivors of the principles for which their friends fought and died. All of us can use that reminder today.

How To Forgive Yourself

Whenever I pick my daughter up from school, I am amazed by the size of her backpack. It is stuffed with books, and by the time she reaches me, it’s fallen off her shoulders.

I am still mystified about why she has to carry so many books in second grade. Yet, many of us also carry heaven burdens. They may not fall off our shoulders.

But they can weigh us down.

Sometimes we just need to let them go. We need to forgive ourselves. One of the great lessons of the Hebrew Bible is that we are not perfect, and we should never expect to be perfect. Perfection is reserved for God, and God can handle our mistakes.

Letting Go Of Our Heavy Load

We can forget this truth. Sometimes, like my daughter, we think we have to carry it all ourselves. A rabbi from the eighteenth century conveys this lesson with a parable.

A poor man was walking along the road. He carried all his earthly possessions on his back. A wagon wagondriver stopped and offered him a ride to the next town. The poor man declined.

After a few miles, the wagon driver looked back and saw the man sitting there, still carrying the load on his back. The driver approached him again. “Why are you still carrying your load? Put it down in the wagon!” he said.

The pauper replied, “Dear sir, you have been so kind to offer me a ride. I cannot possibly impose upon you to ask you to carry my heavy load as well.”

God gives us a ride, and God can carry our load. That does not mean we have a free pass. It means we are human, and we live with the grace given by a power far greater than ourselves.

Why Mark Zuckerberg Wears the Same Shirt Every Day

In a recent interview Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was asked why he wears the same shirt everyday. He answered in the same way Steve Jobs answered a similar question.

He wants to focus his brainpower for the big questions. Deciding what to wear every day, he said, would be a needless waste of intellectual capital.

Zuckerberg is known to be a minimalist in his lifestyle, and this answer reflects that philosophy. It may also reflect some of the lessons he learned growing up at his synagogue. While Judaism does not embrace simplicity in the same Zen Buddhism does, several core practices embody it.

The Secret to Traveling Light

Once upon a time, a poor man walked from town to town. He carried a heavy load on his back.

One day a wagon driver stopped his horse and offered him a ride to the next town. The grateful man said “Yes, thank you for your kindness.”

After they had gone a few minutes, the wagon driver turned around. He saw the poor man still carried the load on his back.

“You don't need to carry that heavy load. You can put it down on the wagon.”

The poor man, “You've been so kind to pick me up. I can't ask you to carry my load as well.

How I Became a Wounded Healer

In seminary we read a famous book called The Wounded Healer. Written by Father Henri Nouwen, it was based on an idea of psychologist Carl Jung.

The idea is that  effective pastors and therapists draw from their own wounds and pain in order to empathize with another. Their own pain gives them a unique window into the feelings of their patient or parishioner.

I was initially dubious of the idea. Every pain or tragedy or illness is unique. We can never enter fully into another’s feelings.

Over time, however, I realized it is not so simple. I realized that behind my initial suspicion was a unhealthy aloofness.

Please Call Me a Pharisee

While sometimes political correctness can rise to the level of foolishness, the words we use do matter. My book editor recently reminded me of this truth.


I had used the phrase “Southern leaders” in referring to political leaders of the Confederacy. My editor pointed out that Blacks in the South were Southerners as well.

To equate Confederate and Southern does an injustice to those African-American Southerners. I should, she suggested, refer to political leaders in the South as “White” or “Confederate” Southern leaders. Lesson learned.

How “Pharisee” Became an Insult

5 Uncomfortable Truths About Your Life

My congregation has nicknamed me the “smiling rabbi.” I was lucky to be born with a happy disposition.

uncomfortable truths- taonga (1)

Yet, we all know life is never perfect. Authentic happiness demands we also grapple with the unhappy parts of our character. Perfection, as Jewish wisdom teaches us, is reserved for God.

How To Grapple With Them

I have found that great theater is one of the best ways to grapple with these uncomfortable parts of ourselves. When we do so honestly, we can grow into more loving, wiser human beings. But it can be very hard. 

What is the Most Important Jewish Holiday?

The answer may surprise you. The most important Jewish holiday is not one that happens only once a year. It is one we celebrate every week.

shabbat do it

It is the Sabbath, known in Hebrew as Shabbat.

Shabbat is at the core of Jewish life. It is built into creation, as we discussed in a previous post. It is part of the Ten Commandments. It has helped keep Judaism alive, and it is a gift adopted in different forms by other religions and cultures around the world.