Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, Fasting, & Joy?
By Rabbi Alana Wasserman
L’shanah tovah! For the past two High Holy Day seasons, I have started one sermon with a line or two from a Broadway song. This year is no different. From the Finale of Les Miserables: “Do you hear the people sing, Lost in the valley of the night, It is the music of a people Who are climbing to the light. For the wretched of the earth, There is a flame that never dies. Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” These lines remind me so much of Yom Kippur. On this day, we start out in a dark, remorseful place (“lost in the valley of the night”), but as the day progresses, the mood lightens (“people who are climbing to the light”), and by Ne’ilah, we are ready to begin the New Year with a clean slate (“Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise”)!
In the Talmud, the rabbis say, “There were no days as happy for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av (Jewish day of love) and as Yom Kippur.” We don’t normally think of Yom Kippur as a happy day; it’s a somber occasion in which we apologize for our sins, and deprive our bodies of food and drink. In fact, the words Yom Kippur literally mean, “the day of wiping away,” meaning the day we wipe away our sins and transgressions. So, how can Yom Kippur possibly be one of the happiest days of the Jewish calendar?
The rabbis go on to answer that question. They say, “Yom Kippur is a day of joy because it has the elements of pardon and forgiveness and moreover, it is the day on which the last pair of tablets were given.” Yom Kippur is the anniversary of the day the second set of the 10 Commandments was given to the Jewish people. Of course this anniversary should be a day of joy! This was the day that God chose to forgive the Jewish people for building and worshipping the Golden Calf, and give them a second chance with a second set of the Ten Commandments. According to tradition, God also decided to forgive all sins on this day every year. Ok, so now we are starting to see how Yom Kippur could be a happy day.
Another way in which we can understand Yom Kippur as a day of happiness is by fasting. I know that also sounds strange (I’m telling you a lot of strange things this morning, aren’t I?), but let me explain. One of the reasons why we fast today is because we are supposed to raise ourselves up to be like the angels in Heaven. As angels are celestial beings, they do not require physical necessities (like food). (Other ways in which we try to emulate the angels today are by wearing white, and abstaining from wearing things like leather shoes.) Instead of focusing on what our bodies need, this fast affords us the opportunity to focus on what our souls need. To quote Rabbi Aaron Lerner (Executive Director of Hillel at UCLA), “All of this physical denial… can be reframed as an opportunity, a chance to simply be, which offers us a peace and happiness beyond what we can get from (physical) pleasure.”
My favorite explanation of why Yom Kippur is a day of happiness is this: Shabbat is a day of rest and joy. On Shabbat we are not supposed to mourn. (For those of you who don’t know, that is why Jewish funerals do not take place on Shabbat.) Yom Kippur is called the Shabbat of Shabbats. Therefore, we must not be sad on this day. We must not focus on what didn’t come to fruition in the past year (and, as we all know, this past year, many things did not come to fruition for many people due to the pandemic). On this day, we are supposed to seek peace by offering and accepting forgiveness for our mistakes and misdeeds. Once we have given and accepted apologies, we can find peace and happiness! And that’s how Yom Kippur can be one of the happiest days of the year.
But here’s the catch: happiness doesn’t come freely on Yom Kippur. It is something each of us must work towards. Each of us must find the courage to seek forgiveness from those whom we have wronged, and each of us must find the courage to forgive those who have wronged us. Finding this courage can be difficult. Sometimes, finding this courage requires a lot of soul searching. We must work for our happiness. But this work is worth it.
Right now, we are still at the beginning of the day; “the valley of the night” (to go back to our song from Les Miserables). I invite you to join our services throughout the day, and transition from “the valley of the night,” into, “climbing to the light” (with our afternoon mini-service and discussion), and ultimately into, “the sun will rise,” (with our N’ilah and Havdallah service).
Our N’ilah service this evening will begin with El Nora Alilah (which our cantorial soloist, Beth Malvezzi, will sing later today). This liturgical poem comes from the Sephardic tradition, and is meant to help us see the joy of the day. Even the melody is supposed to be happy, played in a major key, not a minor key like the rest of the prayers and songs of the holiday. The end of this poem talks about hope and joy for the future. The final verse reads: Daughters and sons, be worthy of your years- May they be many, and filled with joy! Bless us, Avinu, bless us with gladness, In this hour of N’ilah. – El Nora Alilah (p. 614 in Mishkan Hanefesh for Yom Kippur). And for that we say, Amen!
Let Us Not Get Complacent
Kol Nidre, September 27, 2020
By Rabbi Alana Wasserman
L’shanah tovah! I recently read an interview with David Goggins, a retired Navy SEAL, who holds the Guinness World record for doing 4,030 pull-ups in 17 hours. In this article, Goggins attributes all of his successes in life to something he calls, “the day one, week one,” mentality. He says, “Before you go to a job interview, you lay your clothes out. You’ve got your bowl out for your oatmeal, your protein shake, everything is laid out. You show up 30 minutes early. You’re prepped. You studied. When you’re job interviewing or starting a new role at work, you tend to be at your very best… But that mentality can start to fade. It may last for a month or two, but once you realize, ‘I got the job and I’m good,’ you start to fit in with everybody else.” Once you’ve reached that point, Goggins says that the “day one, week one” mentality is replaced with the “I arrived,” mindset because you think you’ve “made it.” However, as we all know, there’s always room for growth.
Tonight is Kol Nidre. Tonight, we are all in the “day one, week one,” state of mind. We are prepped and ready for this New Year. We have committed ourselves to ensuring that this year will be better than the last. While the High Holy Days afford us the opportunity to carve out time to specifically focus on ourselves, and what we can do to enhance our lives and the world, what about a few days from now, when we’re back to our regularly scheduled lives?
The prayers we say on the High Holy Days anticipate that after the start of the New Year, we may want to revert back to the “I arrived” mindset. Themes of death and the fragility of life are used in our liturgy. Although these themes seem scary and morbid, they aren’t meant to instill fear in us. They are actually meant to create an awareness and an appreciation for life. They are meant to remind us not to become complacent. For example, on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read from the Unetaneh tokef, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass on how many shall come to be… who shall perish by fire and who by water… But repentance, prayer, and tzedakah temper judgement’s severe decree.” Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, wrote “The stark, evocative imagery of the liturgy (of the High Holy Days) is aimed primarily at shattering complacency. The impact of this experience can be life-affirming insofar as it serves as a catalyst in a process of self-creation and moral renewal.” The language of our prayers during the High Holy Days is not meant to scare us into doing the right thing. Instead, it is supposed to encourage us to make a change for the better.
And speaking of making a change for the better, in 1865, the 13th amendment was ratified, making slavery illegal. In 1920, the 19th amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Each of these steps (along with countless others) towards equality was made by people who showed up every day with the “day one, week one” mentality. They gave it their all. However, despite all the advances that have been made, prejudice still exists. Why? One reason is because once these goals were achieved, some (not all, but some) people started to slip into the “we arrived” mindset. We stopped feeling the need to talk about racism and prejudice. As a result, in 2020, our news feeds are full of stories about racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. Prejudice is still here. The moment we stopped feeling the need to talk about racism and prejudice is the moment we needed to the most. We have not arrived. We still have a ways to go, which begs the question, how do we get there?
Judaism teaches us to speak out when we see an injustice taking place. In the book of Isaiah, we read “Raise your voice like a shofar!” The shofar is not a quiet instrument. It’s loud and a little jarring. The sound of the shofar is like your morning alarm clock. It tells you to get up and get going! Be loud! Speak up, and speak out when you see an injustice. Don’t be quiet. Don’t be silent. As a people who have been persecuted time and time again, we would want other people to speak out for us. We wouldn’t want people to be meek and quiet if they saw us being attacked. As it says in the Torah, “We must not stand idly by,” (Leviticus 19:16).
As we enter into the year 5781, let us remember to not become complacent, but to stay in our “day one, week one” mentality. Let us remember to use our voice, our shofar, not just today, but every day. When we don’t, when we become silent, we give room for hate to take over. Let us use our voices to drown out the hate with love. May 5781 spur us to act, and may those actions bring peace to us all. Gemar chatimah tovah! May we all be sealed for a good and sweet New Year!