This is a sermon I gave a few years ago.
On Joy and Yom Kippur
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
Every year, a minyan I know in Jerusalem begins their Yom Kippur services at 6:30 in the morning, because they need time to Sing. Every. Word. Itâ€™s a lay-led congregation known for its passionate singing and tremendous energyâ€”on a regular Shabbat morning theyâ€™ll start at 8am and go â€˜till 2 or 3, with a Kiddush break at 11 so that people can take in fortification for the second round. Itâ€™s just about always an incredible experience, one in which the traditional liturgy flows off into jazz riffs and comes back again, in which the community abandons itself, utterly, to the act of prayer. I was in Jerusalem last year for the High Holy Days, so of course I went there. I knew what to expectâ€”Iâ€™d davvened there on Shabbatotâ€”but still, I wasnâ€™t prepared for what they did on the Day of Atonement.
It wasnâ€™t just the feeling of lifting, of being awash in music and sound and prayer and the floating whiteness of everything. It wasnâ€™t just getting lost in the singing, until I didnâ€™t know where I ended and the song began. It wasnâ€™t just the power of the day and the power of the prayer and this power of the community, that each person was pouring out his or her heart as though it was created for the exact purpose of offering up to God. It was all of that, but there was something else.
The services wereâ€¦ joyful. At the end, towards Neilah, the most serious and fervent moment in the day, right as the gates of Heaven are at the balance point between open and closedâ€”at the Leder minyan, we danced. Danced! We shook our butts lâ€™shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, we laughed and sang and then we danced some more. If Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel prayed with his feet when he marched on Washington, we all at the Leder minyan were praying with our booties as we asked for our sins to be forgiven. My experience of Yom Kippur up until that point had been that it was important, profound, transformative, meaningful, deepâ€”but that the Day of Atonement could be joyful? It had simply never occurred to me.
Judaismâ€™s great minds knew already, though. The Talmud tells us, straight up: â€œAtonement and joy go well together.â€ In the Mishnah, Rabbi Akiva is quoted as saying, â€œAshreichem Yisrael, lifnei mi atah mitahrin? Mi mitaher etchem? Avichem shâ€™bâ€™shamayim.â€ â€œHappy are you, Israel! Before whom do you become clean? Who is it that makes you clean? Your father, who is in Heaven.â€ The Hasidic commentator the Sfat Emet writes that Yom Kippur â€œis a day of true joy for Israel, even though we are not quite able to grasp that joy.â€ The Zohar makes the same case, but even stronger: â€œYom Ha-Kippurim, hu yom kâ€™Purim.â€ Yom Kippur is a day like Purim. Today is supposed to be an ideal day for shidduchim, making matches, and the rituals of Yom Kippurâ€”fasting, saying a vidui, wearing whiteâ€”are mirrored exactly in the Jewish marriage ceremony, during which itâ€™s considered a mitzvah to make the new couple happy.
None of this seems obvious, does it? But then again, joy isnâ€™t obvious.
When weâ€™re feeling most things, most times, thereâ€™s an element of distraction to it. Our anger and our sadness, our fear and depression link into a whole, complex network of thoughts and ideas from the past and the future. Weâ€™re remorseful or angry about something that already happened, weâ€™re afraid about something that might happen, weâ€™re both in the moment of our emotion and weâ€™re somewhere else, in another point along the spectrum of timeâ€”torn, ever-so-slightly, in two or more pieces.
When weâ€™re feeling joy, on the other hand, thereâ€™s only the moment of joy, and we take it in fully. We tend to experience more, and are newly attuned to the small, everyday flashes of beauty and grace that populate our lives. We suddenly notice the loveliness of the flowers on the side of the road, the crisp sweetness of an apple, the kindness paid to us by someone we encounter briefly. In joy, we feel more sensitized, more awake, more alive. And itâ€™s that sensitivity, that openness, that situating oneself entirely in the present moment that opens us also to the Divine, to Godâ€™s radiance and Godâ€™s splendor. Present in the moment, we can finally perceive what we too often ignore completely. Joy is the way in.
And yet, as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov has said, â€œFinding true joy is the hardest of all spiritual tasks.â€
Joy is actually hard and threatening for most of us, difficult to tolerate. We know how to do hurt, resentful, afraid, angryâ€”those are familiar states, with a perverse sort of comfort to them. They may not be pleasant, but we know them, know how they work, know how to navigate ourselves within them. Joy? Joy is the unknown. We donâ€™t always feel like we know who we are in the unfettered openness of the present moment, what might give shape to our lives if not the recurring drama, the clinging to the past or the crafting of stories about some vague, hypothetical future. Being present in the moment means accepting what isâ€”and weâ€™re so used to not being here, with one full self, that we donâ€™t know even how it works, what it might do to us. It hurts to be happy. It touches a place deeper and more primal than even all of the old feelings of self-annihilation, something much closer to the core of who we really are. And that? Thatâ€™s terrifying.
Feeling happy makes us vulnerable in a way that feeling terrible doesnâ€™t. Because there is, suddenly, something to lose. Jewish cultureâ€”whether with Eastern European or Middle Eastern influencesâ€”has tapped into that, externalizing and personifying our fears about the fact that joy is non-permanent. My mother would always tell me not to talk about how well things were going, because the dybbuksâ€”the demonsâ€”were listening, and would surely come to throw a wrench in my plans, or that Iâ€™d give myself a kenahorah, entanglement with the evil eye. Or, if you do admit your happiness, you have to negate it lest the evil eye come creeping in: â€œThings are going really well, puh puh puh.â€ Itâ€™s almost comical, except for the ways in which it reveals the abject terror we all have to just sitting with the joy we have, to owning it, to acknowledging it. Maybe we feel like thereâ€™ll have to be some price to pay later on for all the magic weâ€™re experiencing now. Maybe we just donâ€™t trust that this happiness is really here, is really real. Or maybe itâ€™s something else, as Marianne Williamson famously suggested. She writes,
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, â€œwho am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?â€ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make and manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Yom Kippur is the day when we taste a measure of our own power, our own light, our own expansive greatness. The day itself washes us clean, like a mikveh, a ritual bath. All the old hurts and angers are absolved, absorbed into the energy and the intensity of Godâ€™s great, forgiving, compassionate heart. Itâ€™s not that we donâ€™t have work to do. This day is very much about working, about going deep down into the core of our being and excavating everything that doesnâ€™t belong, about offering our sins and indiscretions, our pettiness, our smallness, our fear and our angerâ€”offering it up to the Divine. â€œThough your sins be as scarlet,â€ the book of Isaiah tells us, â€œthey shall be as white as snow.â€
Itâ€™s as though the great light that is the day shines upon us so that we can better see what is there for us to offer, helps us to go deeper into the craggy, hidden corners of ourselves to find what has been lost and what needs to be purged. Through this we take the parts of ourselves that have been torn in pieces, left in the past with our regret and old resentments, left in the future with our fears and fantasies, and we can bring them back togetherâ€”into the sort of brimming over fullness that makes us feel as though our happiness just keeps stretching out, to the horizon.
Part of how we get there is by letting go. The poet William Blake tells us that “He who binds to himself a joy, does the winged life destroy: But he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sun rise.” This is how it works. When joy comes, when you are made anew, returned to the unity in which you were created, you have a choice. You can try to bind yourself to it, get yourself tangled in attachments so that when you meet someone new, you’re already thinking and wondering if he or she will be someone you want to have around in your life on a permanent basis. You can decide that loving one class means that you must spend the rest of your life on that subject. You can become attached to the story turning out one particular way and inevitably be disappointed when it wanders off in a different direction. Or you can kiss the joy as it flies, relish the moment of a wonderful conversation, a wonderful evening, a wonderful classâ€”and wait with eager curiosity to see what might happen next. If your self is whole and not torn, it becomes impossible to do anything but let the moments flow through you, the joy flow through you. And this day, all of it, is meant to help you get there.
Rituals of purification are meant to lift us higher and higher into joy. Fasting is means for altering consciousness and helping us to access a state thatâ€™s difficult when we are full and grounded. Abstaining from leather lowers our defenses as we take down protective armor. Even not having sex shifts our focus from physical intimacy with one specific person to spiritual intimacy with everyone, and with God.
We sit here in judgment, as the Book of Life is sealed, and we pray with the frenzy of last chances. There might never be another opportunity. This is it. â€œWho shall live and who shall die, who shall live out the limit of his days and who shall notâ€¦,â€ the Une Tane Tokef asks. We donâ€™t know. The past has already been broken. The future is out of our hands. All we have, in this moment, is this present moment, the now of our prayers, the now of our connection to the Divine and our selves and all of our great, glimmering potential, of all of the light straining to get out.
Today is the day both of last chances and of ultimate opportunities. “Who shall live and who shall die…” Today is the day we must live, and live better than we ever have. Today is the day we must seize our lives, take hold of them, to become wider and bigger and fuller than we’ve ever been. To shine our great gorgeous light out, in all directionsâ€”to not hide, to know that this is our moment for joy, this is our moment for becoming as powerful as God knows us already to be. There might not be another opportunity. So take the joy now, with both hands, greedily, and through it allow yourself to become purified, to be made new, to experience the atonement of one self, whole, in this present moment, standing before God, in joy.