Friday October 7, 2005
The joy of Yom Kippur: More to atonement than meets the eye
by rabbi judah dardik
Last year, a friend of mine remarked to me on the telephone, â€œOne of the â€˜tragediesâ€™ of Yom Kippur is that it comes every year. If it came every
50 years, it would be a far smaller impediment to personal growth.â€
Heâ€™s got a point. For many people, Yom Kippur represents a struggle that yields little obvious fruit.
Come, sit and spend a long and hungry day reading prayers that seem (at best) vaguely familiar from last yearâ€™s long and hungry sitting.
At the end, having pledged somewhere along the way that we want to be better people, we move on to get a bite to eat and resume normal life until next fall.
Has anything changed? Wouldnâ€™t knowing that we only had this day of reckoning every few decades make it more focused, meaningful and effective?
Given this general state of affairs, the talmudic description of Yom Kippur comes as a surprise. In Tractate Taâ€™anit, the day is described as one of the most joyous in the Jewish calendar, surpassing even Purim, Passover and Simchat Torah! How can this be? Forgiveness is great and getting a fresh start certainly offers a sense of relief, but where exactly does the idea of joy fit into this long dayâ€™s picture?
An answer came to me recently. I was out for a run and saw a neighbor of mine who had recently gotten a rather large new puppy. I asked her how he was doing, and she responded, â€œHeâ€™s happy. And he should be â€” he has a good life.â€
Her comments left me wondering about the great many people I know that seem to have relatively good lives and yet are very unhappy, while others that I know have suffered harsh and painful life experiences and still claim to be happy.
For further illumination, I turned to Pirkei Avot, which contains a wealth of short and sharp insights. At the beginning of chapter four, it teaches: â€œWho is wealthy? One who is satisfied with their share.â€
It would be easy to run right past this, but it is saying something amazing. A person that is rich, but desirous of more, feels a sense of â€œlackâ€ in their life. One who is poor but doesnâ€™t want any more than they have, feels that they lack nothing in life. Who indeed is the rich one, and who feels that they lack?
One could suggest that being happy is not a function of the quality of life that one has, but rather whether it exceeds oneâ€™s expectations.
If we expect certain things and they fail to materialize, we are frustrated with life. And if we expect less and more happens â€” we are happily surprised and feel â€œblessedâ€ and fortunate and thrilled with our share.
So why is Yom Kippur such a joyous day? Because on it we drop our expectations and realize that everything we have is a gift. Sitting in hungry prayer and reflection for so many hours serves to remind us of the blessings that we already have: family, friends, and the ability to feel joy and love and appreciate beauty.
In a sense, this day comes to help us press the equivalent of a spiritual â€œresetâ€ button on our expectations in life. One day a year, we drop all of our airs, look in the mirror, see our failings and realize that nothing is â€œcoming to us.â€
And with it comes seeing what we have in our lives with joy. For that alone if not more, it is worth having every single year, as it can make every day that follows it better.