Today is one of the happiest days of the year. I know this is an odd characterization for a fast day. Most of us would describe Yom Kippur as a sad or solemn day filled with prayers and petitions for forgiveness. Yet, the Mishna in the Tractate of Taanit describes the holiest day of the year as being one of the most joyous of dates in the Jewish calendar.
Even more perplexing is the mystical connection first noted by the kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria who connects Purim to Yom Kippurim – suggesting that a correlation between Purim, a happy day and the Day of Atonement. How do we understand the happiness associated with Yom Kippur?
The first step in appreciating the relationship is to reflect in general on the concept of happiness. We all strive to be happy. I ask parents about their goals for their children and most often people respond that they want their children to be happy. Most societies are driven by the pursuit of happiness.
What is the definition of happiness and how is it achieved? Does Judaism believe we should be happy?
Happiness is not easily defined let alone achieved. We often associate the feeling with success or fun. In reality, affluence is not directly correlated with being happy. A number of years ago, I visited a friend in Palm Springs, California to spend time learning Torah. While at dinner one night, one of the guests commented that while Palm Springs is filled with great wealth, he knows many people who are lost and who do not sense direction. One woman chimed in, “Too much chocolate cake is not a good thing. It is an ideal world here in some ways but at the same time there is only so much golf one can play. Without feeling constructive, there is much boredom and unhappiness.”
On the other extreme, I recently had a conversation with a subway conductor in NYC while the train was idling for a few moments. He peered out the window and I asked him if he enjoyed his job. He replied, “It pays the bills.” I said to him with a smile, “It more than pays the bills. You are doing holy work. You are bringing people from one place to the next and helping people do what they do best.” I know it seems like the train was idling bit too long but he turned to me with a surprised and grateful expression and thanked me.
The source of happiness is a mysterious and elusive to many people. Obstacles to achieving the emotion are numerous. It is not only confusing happiness and with success but also other misperceptions.
Many people have the Missing Tile syndrome. Human nature’s most effective way of undermining happiness is to gaze at a beautiful scene and fixate on whatever is lacking. Imagine being in a room with a tilled ceiling and one tiles is missing. The room is stunning expect for that one tile but where do we focus our glance. This phenomenon was crystallized by someone who shared with me that he knows a bald person who confided in him,” Whenever I enter a room, all I see is hair.” He was shocked to learn that people, who do have hair, do not even notice people who do not have hair. The syndrome is ubiquitous. We compare ourselves to others, whatever the contrast may be, and focus on our perceived “flaw” and then allow the feeling to diminish our happiness. (Never fully satisfied)
(Does age effect happiness? A large Gallup poll recently concluded that by almost any measure, people get happier as they get older and researchers are not sure why. The results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, noted the following: People start out at age 18 feelings pretty good about themselves, and then apparently life throws curveballs. They feel worse and worse until they hit 50. At that point, there is a sharp reversal, and people keep getting happier as they age. By the time they are 85, they are even more satisfied with themselves than when they were 18.)
What is the real secret to happiness? How does Yom Kippur shape our perspective?
Here is the secret: Judaism teaches that happiness is not a goal but the byproduct of our actions. Judaism teaches – Serve G-d with Joy. It does not tell us there is a mitzvah to be happy. Rather, through our service and actions, we derive happiness. Most people think of happiness as a feeling – I feel happy or I feel unhappy when in reality it is the outgrowth of our perspective, sense of purpose and deeds.
The holiday of Yom Kippur encapsulates a life strategy for happiness. If we carefully examine the original source of our quandary, we will discover that the Sages derive the joy of Yom Kippur from three historic events that occurred on the 10th of Tishrei – the Hebrew date for Yom Kippur. G-d’s forgiveness, the giving of the second Tablets and the dedication of the Temple. Each event signifies a secret of happiness.
The first Yom Kippur in history occurred over 3500 years ago when G-d in His infinite mercy forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf – the transgression of idolatry. Imagine the audacity of the Jewish people. They had witnessed the miracles of Egypt and spectacles of Sinai and yet they betrayed G-d and his Torah. Yet, after days of praying for compassion and forgives, G-d reunites with the Jewish people and offers complete selichah and mechilah – atonement and forgiveness.
This idea signifies G-d’s intense love for us. Despite our shortcomings and deficiencies, G-d relationship with us endures. The first secret of happiness stems from a knowledge and awareness of our timeless connection to G-d.
It is not in my mind coincidental that the first and last halachot of the Code of Jewish Law reinforce this concept.
The first law stresses the importance of standing before G-d always. The last law which is in the section related to Purim states: It is good for the heart to always celebrate! When we keep G-d in our minds and heart always, how can we not find inner happiness? Perhaps this is why one of the times when the Torah states the word simcha, “joy” is in the context of Lifnei Hashem – standing before G-d. The main verse associated with Yom Kippur is also Lefnei Hashem – standing before G-d.
Perceiving G-d’s presence dwarfs many other sources of happiness. For instance, if Yom Kippur is the one of the happiest days of the year, when is the happiest moment? I realize that we are all very hungry at the end and certainly enjoy the break fast but the happiest moment for me and many of us is at the close of Neilah when we chant with all of our hearts and souls together with the entire community – Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad – Here O Israel, the Lord Our G-d, the Lord in One. We find a burst of energy and proclaim seven times Hashem hu Haelokim. If someone came to us at the moment we were reciting these words and asked “How are the Yankees? “, we would think they were crazy. Why? At that moment, we all understand the source of our true joy – connecting with the Almighty and entering His Zone.
The Chazon Ish, one of the great Torah personality of the 20th century, wrote, “For one who knows the light of truth, there is no sadness s in the world.” How is this possible? The Chazon Ish himself lived through the agony of WW II and experienced his own tragedies.
The answer lies in a parable. The guards of a city were instructed to learn how to recognize people at night. The first guard was given a candle but the second one was not. The second guard felt discriminated against since he was not given a light. At the beginning the first guard was understandably much more successful but ultimately the second guard became a better scout. Why? The second guard had to learn to see even when there was no light. He had to learn to use the slightest glimmer to see in the darkness.
Our goal is not to make sure our children are happy but to give them the happiness skills to find the positive in any given situation.
Yom Kippur challenges us to develop our appreciation of being in G-d presence 24/7. Happiness emerges from a perceptive of G-d’s light in our life.
What is the second message of happiness on Yom Kippur?
Yom Kippur celebrates G-d giving of the second set of tablets to the Jewish people and renewal of the covenant of the Torah. Happiness emerges from leading a life of meaning and purpose.
(The idea can best be summed up in a recent interview with a NYC firefighter whose father perished in 9/11. When asked why he chose the same profession, he responded that his father, of blessed memory, always told him, “Find a job you love and you will never work a day in your life.”)
This idea came into focus for me before Yom Kippur when my father offered me his annual blessing. Beyond the words of the priestly bracha he prayed that all of the dreams and expectations of my family should be fulfilled according to the principles of the Torah.
Many people confuse happiness with pleasure. In reality, a person may experience pain but still be happy. Viktor Frankel, the noted psychotherapist, wrote that people can deal with almost any “what” if they have a good enough “why”. Athletes and musicians endure a lot of anguish when training but understand the goal they hope to achieve. A person in a health club pays for the privilege of agony because they understand the benefits.
Rabbi Akiva Tatz describes happiness as what we experience when we are doing what we know we should be doing. We all intuitively realize that the greatest source of happiness evolves from perseverance and commitment to a lofty goal. For this reason, the Sages say that true joy only resides with a person who is engaged in a mitzvah. A mitzvah is more than a commandment or a good deed but the action links us to a higher purpose.
The observance of Shabbat or keeping kosher may not always be easy but the inner joy and reverberations of our deeds resonate deeply.
Understanding this secret of happiness spells the difference between a life of frustration and one of success. We experience real happiness when we are moving on a journey to express our inner most selves. This is the essence of the Jewish journey. Abraham is charged with Lech Lecha – not only going out to the land of Canaan but going Lecha – to yourself.
The journey of life is always made with resistance. This is the only way to grow. When we strain against the ordeals and difficulties and move ahead, knowing that we are building ourselves and leading a life of purpose, we achieve the greatest joy.
I think there is one other element why on the holiest day of the year we focus on the joy we derive from leading a Torah centered life. First, the inner happiness is a motivator. When we experience and appreciate the beauty of mitzvoth, one at a time, we are propelled to strive to do more. This is the reason why our Sages explain one mitzvah leads to the next.
When people would ask the Lubavicther Rebbe what one mitzvah they should adopt, it would be lighting Shabbat candles. In many cases, this one mitzvah and the awareness of the sanctity of Shabbat it engendered would be the catalyst for the adoption of more mitzvoth of Shabbat.
Second, the joy we exhibit in our observance will be caught by our children. They will see our love of Torah and be captivated by the spirit. On Yom Kippur, we ask ourselves, “Would my children be inspired to come closer to Torah observance through the way I speak, daven, and practice? How can I practice more intensely this year so I will be a source of inspiration for my family and community?”
This Yom Kippur, we are challenged to find the inner sparks of enthusiasm and joy not only in today but in all of Jewish life.
Finally, Yom Kippur conveys a third strategy for happiness. The mishna teaches that historically, Yom Kippur is also the day the Temple was dedicated in Jerusalem. The Temple or Bayit – a home – symbolizes the harmony amidst the Jewish people and between us and G-d. We generate simcha in our lives through generosity to others.
In fact, the Torah itself conveys this secret to happiness. The words rejoice is used in connection to marriage. The Torah writes that the mitzvah within marriage is not to be happy but to make our spouse happy. Wisely, when we insure another person’s happiness, we experience our own inner happiness as well.
We cannot make anyone else happy without making ourselves a little happier.
Once, a well dressed man was walking in the park. He came across a young boy who was sobbing against a tree. The boy pointed to the top of the tree and said, “My kite is caught up there and I don’t know how to get it down.” Without hesitation, the man climbed the tree and rescued the kite. The boy smiled up at the man and said, “Thank you.” The man smiled back, “You’re welcome.” It was a double miracle – the boy and the man were happy. It was unimportant to the man that he tore his jacket or nicked his hand, because inside he had a feeling of satisfaction. He brought joy to someone else, so he was filled with joy. Through tzedkah and acts of kindness we generate simcha internally and for the world.
We now understand why there were not better days for the Jewish people than Yom Kippur. Today represents the raison de etre of our existence. As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, one of the foremost Jewish philosophers, writes, G-d created the world and human beings for the purpose of deriving joy.
G-d willing, this year we will access the happiness of Yom Kippur every day. Through our renewed appreciation of G-d’s embrace, leading lives of purpose and Torah observance, and giving to others we will generate happiness not only in ourselves but in our families, communities and all of Klal Yisrael for generations to come.
May G-d seal us in the book of life and let us say Amen.