Everything I ever needed to know about New Year’s resolutions I learned in eighth grade.
It was 2003, during the week that Jews around the world start reading the book of Shemot, or Exodus, and my teacher, Rabbi Pressman, made a deal with us, his adolescent students: “If you read through the parsha, twice from the chumash and once with the Targum, for five weeks in a row, I’ll give you $10—or 40 points to be distributed on your upcoming exams.”
It must have been one of those dreary December school days that began before sunrise, so I balked at this unwanted interruption. But when the rabbi reiterated his offer the next week, I decided to take him up on it, finishing that year with a perfect test average, aided mightily by those valuable bonus points for consistently reviewing the weekly portion.
As many around the world launch 2022 with vast to-do lists, vowing to improve everything from their diet to their finance, I can’t stop thinking about Rabbi Pressman, and the lesson he taught me, one that has sustained me well past the eighth grade. He didn’t suggest steps to leading “a spiritual life” or ways to become “more religious.” He never spoke in such amorphous terms; instead, he tapped into the rabbinic commandment of shnayim mikra v’echad targum, an obligation to review the weekly Torah portion twice in Hebrew and once in translation. It may not sound like a very inspiring pursuit, but, as Rabbi Pressman understood perfectly, it was a great introduction into a bit of wisdom that Judaism teaches us all: If you want to change your life, it’s perspiration, not inspiration, you’ll need. Change doesn’t come from wishin’ and hopin’; it comes from doing.
Even, or especially, doing something that isn’t exactly always a thrilling pleasure. Like shnayim mikra: While Jews traditionally read the Torah on a 50ish-week cycle in the “main sanctuary” of our synagogues, the Shulchan Aruch, the source for normative Jewish law, declares that everyone is obligated to review the weekly portion individually. You can discharge part of this obligation by reading along with the Torah reader; however, you still need to proceed through the weekly reading one more time in Hebrew and then another time in translation, for which many rely on the Aramaic Targum Onkelos.
What do you get if you take on the practice of shnayim mikra? As I learned back in junior high, you get a master class in habit-forming behavior, the only sort that’s going to set you on the path to real growth. The process works on three levels: 1) it’s centered on the practice of an entire community; 2) there is an obligation to do it; and 3) the words never change.
That last point is particularly poignant. Each year, I review the same creation story, the same Exodus, the same Leviticus, but I see the words and happenings from my current point of view. Reflecting on the patriarchs and matriarchs finding one another changed when I met the person I was meant to marry. Understanding sibling and parental strife changed as my family expanded, we experienced loss, and we tried to decipher moving guidelines for contemporary health practices. I don’t only read the portion one time, though; each year I read the story twice and the interpretation once. Each time through the text, I can reflect on what I believe has happened, and then I’m forced to take a different view, the view of the Targum, a translation that I don’t always understand but respect and study nonetheless. The logic is simple and unassailable: First, do something. Second, do the same thing again. Third, reflect on how the same thing changes as you do. And, finally, do something that forces you to step out of your own head for a short spell, to get a thoroughly different point of view.
This logic has compelled me to continue with the practice of shnayim mikra long after Rabbi Pressman delivered on his promise of extra points. I’ve found ways to do shnayim mikra in just about any imaginable place, from Cancun to Latvia. Whether with my tattered chumash, a brand new Artscroll, or a glowing iPhone screen featuring Sefaria, each day is punctuated by checking in with shnayim mikra. I know what the Torah portion of the week will be, so I am connected to my community, and I stay grounded in the annual retelling of the parsha because it will hit me differently this year whether it’s the mikra or the Targum, the traditional reading or the translation. Beyond sticking with my community’s reading, I feel a Duolingo-level pressure to maintain my streak. Put simply, I haven’t broken my resolution in nearly 20 years; if the same was true of everyone else, cupcake shops would go out of business and there would be a gym around every corner.
And I have Rabbi Pressman to thank for that. Recently, I picked up the phone and, after nearly two decades, called my wise old teacher. I told him that I was still at it, still studying, and thanked him for instructing me not only in Torah but also in how to live a life of purpose, consistency, grit, and dedication. And if you, too, are looking for a new year’s resolution you could actually keep, there are few better Jewish paths to take than saying yes to shnayim mikra. Sure, Daf Yomi, the reading of one page of Talmud a day, is way more popular, with hundreds of thousands of learners all getting together, in person and online, to study. And plenty of other Jewish texts offer you the pleasure of a small dose of learning over days, weeks, and months, from the ancient Mishna to the writings of the Chofetz Chaim and his warnings against gossip. You can study any or all of them. But let me make a special case for shnayim mikra, because it’s not only January but also the time when we read the book of Shemot, whose name, spelled in Hebrew, also makes up the acronym shnayim mikra v’echad targum. So forget about “living healthy” or “being more responsible with money” or any other generality you’re inclined to promise now but fail at soon. Make a much more mundane commitment—just a few pages of text every week—and you’ll learn not only the truth of Torah but also the supreme satisfaction of finally learning how to keep your new year’s resolutions.