In the Mishnah Yom Kippur is described as one of the most happy days of the year, an odd description for a fast day that many of us would define like a sad, formal day, full of prayer and requests for forgiveness.
Our mystics, in particular Rabbi Isaac Luria from Safed, said there is a relationship between Yom Kippur, called in Hebrew also Yom Hakippurim and Purim. How can we understand the happiness of Yom Kippur?
The first step, of course, is to understand what happiness is. We all want to be happy. If I ask every parent here, including myself, what do we want for our kids, we will say that we want them to be happy. Most societies aspire to achieve happiness.
So, what is happiness and how can we get it? Does Judaism think that we are supposed to be happy? It’s hard to define what is happiness and even more to achieve it. We tend to connect this feeling with success or fun. Not always abundance and happiness go together and many times people that have much are not the most happy ones, on the contrary, many times very simple people go around in life with a feeling of happiness and satisfaction that others have a hard time understanding.
The source of happiness is mysterious and esoteric for many people. The obstacles to be happy are many; sometimes the obstacle is to confuse happiness and success. Other times, we have the “Missing Tile Complex”, one of the ways that our human nature decreases from our happiness. Never heard about the “Missing Tile Complex”? It is when you look at a room with beautiful tiles with a wonderful design, but there is one missing tile. Everything is wonderful besides that little missing tile… but what is the only thing that attracts our attention? The missing tile. A lot of times we look at something beautiful and we concentrate mostly in what is missing. A lot of times we compare ourselves to others and we concentrate on the defect or failure that we have in comparison to them, giving that feeling the power to decrease from our happiness.
Does age has an influence on happiness? There are studies that say yes, that older people are happier. People feel pretty happy with themselves at age 18, but then life gets more and more complicated and we feel worse with ourselves until age 50, when things change and people start feeling better and better with each year that passes. When people arrive to age 81 they are happier than they were at age 18. Really, I am not kidding you.
So what’s the secret for being happy? And what has anything of this has to do with Yom Kippur?
Judaism teaches us that happiness is not an objective, but the consequence of our acts. We are supposed to serve G-d with happiness, but there is no command to be happy, besides during the festival of Sucot. It is through our actions that we create happiness. Most of us think about happiness as a feeling, I feel happy or I feel sad. Maybe, happiness is actually a product of our perspective, our objectives in life and the actions we do.
Yom Kippur offers a strategic plan for happiness. According to the Talmudic Sages, the origin of Yom Kippur is in three historical events that happened on this day, the 10th of Tishrei: the forgiveness of G-d for the sin of the Golden Calf, the giving of the second Tablets of the Law (No kids, I didn’t say I-Pads, you can go back to sleep) and the inauguration of the First Temple. From each one of these events we can learn something about happiness:
The first Yom Kippur ever was when G-d forgave the People of Israel for the sin of the Golden Calf. The Israelites had a lot of chutzpah, they were just witnesses to the miracles of the Ten Plagues in Egypt, the parting of the Sea, the Revelation in Sinai and still they built an idol for themselves. And still, G-d hears the supplication of Moses and forgives.
I believe this shows the love of G-d for us. Sometimes we feel that we are not good enough, but G-d loves us with all of our defects. The relationship between us is eternal. If we are connected to our spiritual side, if we are aware that there is more that what we can see, if we believe there is something bigger than us, then this belief will become a source for happiness. This relationship with the ineffable, with what we cannot define, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to call to this awareness, makes the presence of G-d real in our lives and becomes a source for happiness.
If Yom Kippur is a happy day, then what is the happiest moment in Yom Kippur? Maybe towards the end. Nope, not when we eat, but before that, when we are still hungry and thirsty, but we say together the Shemah Israel and we proclaim that Hashem is our G-d. There is an energy that flows between all of us, we are so connected. Yom Kippur challenges us to develop the awareness of G-d’s presence all the time, as we say in Psalm 27 that we have been saying for over a month: “I will live in the House of Lord all the days of my life”.
The second historical event we were talking about that happened in Yom Kippur according to tradition was the giving of the new Tablets of the Law, instead of the ones Moses broke, and the renewal of the covenant between Israel and G-d. Happiness comes from living a life of purpose and objectives. A few years ago I read an interview to a fire fighter from New York, whose father, also a fire fighter, died in the line of duty on the 11th of September 2001. They asked him why did he choose that profession after what happened to his father and he answered with the words of his father: Find a job you like and you won’t really work a day in your life.
People think that happiness and pleasure are the same thing and it is still possible that someone with physical pain is happy. The famous psychologist, Victor Frankl, a Shoah survivor, said that a person can deal almost with any “what” if he or she has a “why” good enough.
Rabbi Akiva Tatz describes happiness as something we feel when we are doing what we know to be right. We know intuitively, in our heart, that the source of happiness is commitment to a worthy purpose. Abraham was told “go for your own sake”, not only “go somewhere else”, but “go, for yourself, in order to be able to express the best and deepest part of yourself”. The difficulties of life help us to mature and when we are successful in that task, that’s real happiness. If we are committed to ourselves, then our example can inspire our children as well. That’s an excellent question to ask yourselves in Yom Kippur: Is our life a good enough example for our children?
And finally the third event: the inauguration of the First Temple, of Solomon’s Temple. This Sanctuary was supposed to be a symbol of the harmony between the people of Israel and themselves, and between them and G-d. We create happiness in life through harmony and we create harmony by generosity to others. We see this in our marriages, an area where we find very often the word happiness. The tradition teaches us that the objective of marriage is not to be happy, but to cause our partner to be happy. In a non surprising manner, when we are able to make the other happy, then we are happy ourselves. We cannot make somebody else happy without causing ourselves to be a little more happy. Through helping others and actions of kindness we create happiness for ourselves and for others.
Therefore Yom Kippur is such a happy day, it symbolizes the most central values for us. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato said that G-d created human beings in the World only to bring happiness to it.
G-d willing, Beezrat Hashem, we will be very happy this year, may we be able to connect to the happiness of Yom Kippur every day, through awareness of the love of G-d for us, through a life of meaning and of giving to others. We will create happiness not only for us, but for our families, for our community, our society and even beyond.
Yom Kippur Sameach, may you have a Happy Yom Kippur!