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On Yom Kippur I find myself caught between emotions. Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and introspection, therefore, the need to be reflective and contemplative. It is a day of fasting for all people and even, as Torah teaches, our animals. There is a teaching that last night, when we removed the Torah scrolls to stand with us during the Kol Nidrei, and we stared into the open, empty ark, we are staring into our own coffin. This aron, coffin, is supposed to remind us that each of us will, at the end of our days, end up in that coffin. But today, we must face our own issues of mortality while asking, ‘what am I doing with my life today?’ Talk about a somber expression of the day.
Yet, Yom Kippur is not only to be so heavy for it is the beginning of a new year, new opportunities, new chances to start again. From how we dress to how we seek God’s forgiveness, to how we approach the coming year in happiness.
Yom Kippur, I would like to suggest this morning, is a time of great happiness and gratitude.
Let’s begin with how we dress: If we are to consider this day to be so somber, why not wear black? Black seems so much more conservative and quiet? The problem is that black is the color we see when we are in mourning. The color one wears to a funeral or on days like Tisha B’Av, the day on which we recall the destruction of the First and Second Temples and Jerusalem. Rather, on Yom Kippur it is customary for us to wear white; Cantor Reinwald and I don our white robes during these High Holy Days, our choir is in white, and many of you dress choose to dress in white as well. White is the color of purity and calls to mind the promise we read in Isaiah that our sins will be made as white as snow. (Isaiah 1:18) Some will wear a kittel, the traditional burial shroud, as a reminder of our own mortality, yet this is also the garment worn on Passover when we celebrate our freedom from slavery, and is worn on our wedding day, truly the most joyous of days. White is uplifting and brings such pleasant memories to mind when we see it. It is a color meant to invoke happiness and energy. And who else wears white? The rabbis teach us that the angels wear white, hence, what better day than Yom Kippur to dress up like the angels of God, so we might invoke their energy and blessings on this day.
We see this day as a somber day for we are asking God for forgiveness for all our transgressions. This is the day that we stand exposed before God, placing all of our faults and transgressions before us, asking God to help us achieve a fuller life and allow us to return to the right path, toward teshuvah. If being judged before God is not call for serious contemplation, than what is? But the Baal Shem Tov suggests otherwise.
Once, the Baal Shem Tov came to a certain city before Rosh Hashanah. He asked the inhabitants of the city, “Who is the Reader of the service here during the Days of Awe?” They said to him, “The rabbi of the city.” The Baal Shem Tov asked, “How does he conduct the prayers?” They said to him, “He chants all the confessions of Yom Kippur with joyful melodies.”
The Baal Shem Tov sent after the rabbi and asked him, “Why do you sing the confessions joyfully?” Said the rabbi to him, “Lo, a servant who is cleaning the courtyard of the king, if he loves the king, is very happy cleaning the refuse from the courtyard, and sings joyful melodies, for he is giving pleasure to the king.”
Said the Baal Shem Tov, “May my lot be with yours!” (Or Yesharim)
I can’t help but think of the nigun that begins our ashamnu, followed by the way the words are chanted after. (ASK CANTOR TO SING) This is not a dirge, and while the tune took me by surprise when I first heard it, I see the meaning of the story of the Baal Shem Tov. For the work that we do as we approach God as “King, Ruler, Sovereign,” should be done with a joyful heart. Even if it is cleaning the refuse of a city, if we have a love for God and a passion for our religious practices, why should they be a dirge? Why can’t they be done in joy? Our vidui, our confession of sins, while we are not proud of the mistakes we have made over the year or over our lifetimes, is an opportunity to begin again. We are cleaning the city of our hearts.
And as we are cleaning with a joyful song, we must know that God too is rejoicing with us. Seder Eliyahu Rabbah Rishon teaches us:
In Psalms we read: “Days were fashioned, but for God one [day in particular]”. That is Israel’s Yom Kippur, which was a day of great rejoicing for “God who spoke and the world came into being,” a day which God gave to Israel out of God’s great love for us.
Even more, when God pardons the iniquities of Israel, God is not sad at heart, but rejoices exceedingly, saying to the mountains and the hills, to the springs and the valleys, “Come and rejoice greatly with me, for I am forgiving the iniquities of Israel.”
God rejoices during this Day of Atonement because we are all here. God rejoices because we want to do and be better. God wants to sing out for all to hear, from the mountains and hills, to the springs and valleys and say, ‘look at My children! Look at how they strive to do better! While their choices in life may not always be the best, look how they hope to become better. How can I be angry at that?’
Even at the beginning of our Yom Kippur, last night, as we stood prepared to recite and hear the Kol Nidrei, asking God to forgive our transgressions, before we even said the words, we read from the book of Numbers (14:19-20): “As, in Your love, You O God, have been patient with this people from the time You led us out of Egypt to the present day, so in Your great love, may You forgive Your people now. And God said, ‘I have pardoned in response to your plea.’”
God is so generous as to forgive the people even before we have had the chance to recite the confessional prayers of Yom Kippur. This is not to take away the importance of our own confession or to say that we do not have to fully participate and embrace this time of confession and renewal, but that we should do so with a glad heart. That rather than see this day as a day of consequence and strict obedience, we embrace the joy for an opportunity to pursue happiness.
How is it that we can embrace happiness on this day? Because happiness is a deep-seated, on-going feeling of personal, spiritual well-being. It is something that can help us to survive, even the most challenging moments of our lives. It could even be argued that happiness is a moral obligation. Dennis Prager, in his book, “Happiness is a Serious Problem,” writes “we owe it to our husband or wife, our fellow workers, our children, our friends, indeed to everyone who comes into our lives, to be as happy as we can be. This does not mean acting unreal, and it certainly does not mean refraining from honest and intimate expressions of our feelings to those closest to us. But it does mean that we owe it to others to work on our happiness. We do not enjoy being around others who are usually unhappy. Those who enter our lives feel the same way.”
Another reason that happiness is a moral obligation is that, in general, people act more decently when they are happy. Think about this. Do you feel better toward people when you are happy or when you are unhappy? But what gets in the way of our happiness and our joy, are a number of obstacles, some of which Dennis Prager suggests: constantly comparing ourselves and our achievements with others’; the tendency to focus on the one sour note in an otherwise wonderful accomplishment; equating happiness with success; equating happiness with fun; and having a sense of entitlement, an expectation that things should happen a certain way for us. This last one becomes more common the higher up the socio-economic ladder we go.
Along with approaching this Day of Atonement with a joyful voice, we approach it with the desire to be more grateful for our gifts, our lives, our world, in order to truly seek happiness. When we think about those who are truly happy, they are those who are filled with gratitude for what is in their lives, even if what they have doesn’t seem like much. Yet, there are even those who seem to have so much in their lives, as far as stuff, but are never happy. They seem to only be looking for something else to complain about. Pirkei Avot teaches, Eize hu ashir? Ha sameach b’chelko, who is wealthy? The one who is happy with what he has. That’s why our tradition teaches us to recite at least 100 blessings each day. And while many of these blessings are found in our daily prayers, there are so many left for us to say during many moments in our lives. Thank you God for allowing me to wake up this morning. Thank you God for allowing my body to work in all the ways that it should. Thank you God for the doctors and nurses who are helping my body to work in the way it should. Thank you God for the car designers who created the safety features keeping me and my family safe.
You all know the blessings, no one has to write them for you. Taking the time to create them ourselves, just that moment, a moment to share gratitude, leads to happiness and improved attitude. This day of Yom Kippur, while it is the most important day of our year, can and should be joyful. We get to dress up like the angels and stand with God. We have an opportunity to sweep the clouds aside like we read in Isaiah and Midrash, “As clouds are swept aside by the wind, so the transgressions of Israel are swept aside in the world and will not rise again in the world to come, as it is said, “I have swept aside like a cloud.” This is a joyful day and as God sings joyfully, so too must we, for we stand today, ready for a new year, new beginnings, new opportunities. And tonight, as we conclude our fast, we are commanded to build the first wall of our Sukkah as we enter the holiday called, z’man simchateinu, the time for our greatest joy!
While we recognize the intensity of this day, let us not allow it to weigh us down so much that we lose the joy of life and living. With joyful voices allow us to not only show pleasure to God as we clean the palace of our hearts. While we acknowledge our own mortality, allow us to live each day fully and embrace moments of joy for ourselves, our family and our community. And with a glad heart, let us say, Amen.