Last year was the first time I observed the High Holidays as a Jew. While I had a wonderful time celebrating Rosh HaShanah at two of my close colleagues’ homes with delicious home-cooked meals, I was secretly dreading Yom Kippur.
Everything I had read about the holiday seemed to cause me stress; after all, this was the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, and at that, a day dedicated to accounting for our past year’s sins and making ourselves vulnerable to our own self-scrutiny. I was also told never to wish other Jews a “happy Yom Kippur.” A day of such solemnity, after all, could never be a happy one.
However, after I read this article by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who came to view the holiday very differently while studying in Israel, I began to think otherwise. Ruttenberg, after attending an energized Yom Kippur service in which the entire community actually danced and sang during , realized this day could be joyful. She learned that washing ourselves clean, abandoning our negativity, and embracing vulnerability helps us tap into the happiness of the everyday moments we often take for granted.
I couldn’t believe that a holiday that’s so consistently associated with misery could actually be one of joy! And yet, given that Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, it makes sense that it can, and, for some, might be so.
Jewish poet and liturgist Ruth F. Brin evoked this philosophy in her prayer “Illuminations,” featured in, the prayer book of North America’s Reform community: “Through prayer, I can sense my inner strength,” she says. “…My inner purpose, my inner joy, my capacity to love. As I reach upward in prayer, I sense these qualities in my Creator.” Yom Kippur presents a chance to latch on to our own individual inner strength by facing everything that’s weighed us down, allowing us the opportunity to embrace joy in the process. We must ask ourselves, “What is holding me back from seeing my own strength? What anger, resentment, or needless anxiety is standing in the way of breathing in the sweetness of joy?”
There is more than enough happening in the world that brings us sadness and misery. As the Jewish people, we are lucky to have holidays – lots of holidays, in fact – to remind us of our human capacity and need to be joyful. We even celebrate one of these holidays, Shabbat, every week – a frequent reminder to tap into the fleeting moments around us that bring us happiness. Yom Kippur is no exception to this reality.
Rabbi Joseph R. Black of Temple Emanuel in Denver, CO, teaches of the link between Yom Kippur and a seemingly very different festival: Purim. “The rabbis liked to compare Purim to Yom Kippur,” he explains. “Even the biblical name for the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippurim is interpreted as ‘Yom k’Purim,’ literally meaning ‘a day like Purim.’ What is the connection between these two days? On Purim we put on our masks. On Yom Kippur we remove them.”
Removing these masks makes us vulnerable, and that can be scary. At the same time, however, there is an intense, beautiful joy in the act of shedding our pretenses. When we remove the masks we subconsciously wear throughout the year – the masks of apathy, condescension, impatience, and others – we can more easily feel the wind gusting against our faces. The winds of empathy, love, and joy can feel chilling at first; we aren’t used to them. But as we grant ourselves permission to condition ourselves to them, that chill can become invigorating, inspiring, empowering. We can use this shift in feeling to transform ourselves and, by extension, the world around us, making it a far more joyful place.
I wish all who read this post a meaningful, reflective, and, yes, even a happy Yom Kippur.