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September 20, 2018

Joy is Central on Yom Kippur

Angela W. Buchdahl

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Click here to listen to or download audio only (MP3)

I love Jewish Holidays.

That may not particularly surprise you, coming from your Rabbi.
But I still get a thrill every Passover
when we retell how we escaped Pharoah,
and every Purim, how we managed to foil Haman,
and every Hanukah, how the Maccabees
miraculously defeated the Greeks.
You have to love how we Jews managed to turn
our worst, near death-experiences into Jewish holidays. 
You know the Cliff-notes version:
“They tried to kill us.  We survived.  Let’s eat.”

But of all the holidays,
which do you think our tradition considers the most joyful
Show of hands—Who thinks its Passover? Purim? Chanukkah?
How about . . . Yom Kippur?!
Where we beat ourselves up for an alphabet of sins, and don’t eat anything. 

For the two of you who raised your hands for Yom Kippur—you win
That’s right—the Mishnah says that tonight,
Yom Kippur, is one of the two most joyous days of the Jewish calendar1.

If you chose Purim, you deserve an honorable mention.
The 18th Century scholar, the Vilna Gaon,
explained that the biblical name for Yom Kippur is Yom Ha-K’ Purim.
Hear that? Literally: Yom Kippur is a day like Purim.
On the surface, the holidays couldn’t seem more different—
one is the Day of Atonement and the other, a Slivovitz-filled, Jewish mardi gras.
But beneath the surface, the holidays are similar at their core:
On Purim, when we glimpse our gallows and Yom Kippur, when the gates are closing,
we are forced to confront our mortality.
And this is precisely why these holidays are considered among our most joyful.

I want to clarify that when I speak of joy,
I’m not talking about that temporary, ego-gratifying happiness
you might feel when you, say—
find street parking. 
I am talking about simcha
the kind of deep soulful uplift and connection, which I will translate as “joy.” 
It is striking that the word simcha in the Torah is never about individuals.
It is always about something we share—
like a wedding which is considered the ultimate simcha
The experience of coming together in an authentic and loving way with another person
or people, or even nature or God, generates simcha.

I feel this simcha in the sanctuary with you all tonight
and I will feel it tomorrow night with my loved ones at break-fast
when we inhale bagels with schmear.
I find it here every friday night when we gather for Shabbat.
For all our kvetching—we Jews really know how to do simcha.
And this joy doesn’t derive from promises of a heavenly after-world
but is grounded in the very reality of this world,
with all our tragedies, our fears and yes—our mortality.
On Yom Kippur, this day our tradition considers most joyous,
we lean into our mortality.

Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, a 19th Century Mussar Rabbi
helps us understand why.
He says: “Remembering death in the proper way
can bring a person to the ultimate joy.”

I experience a version of this on a daily basis,
in a way that is not frightening, but nevertheless illuminating. 
Six months ago I downloaded an app called “WeCroak.”
As in: we are all going to croak.
The app is based on a Buddhist tradition from Bhutan
which teaches that contemplating death five times a day brings happiness.
So, five times a day, randomly,
a window pops up on my phone with the same message:
“Reminder: You are going to die. Click here for a quote.”
Sometimes, I will admit it, I just ignore it.
There are times when I just don’t need a reminder that I am going to die.
But other times, the app provides some much needed perspective. 
Like when I’m aimlessly cyber-shopping on my phone:
Reminder—you are going to die.
(Press button) “Life is too short to be lived badly.”
And I find something better to do.

Or when I’m in an elevator and I’m in such a rush
that I pretend I don’t see the person coming—and let the door close. 
Reminder—you are going to die.
(Press button) “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness“
It is amazing how confronting my mortality readjusts my mindset.

Some of you sitting here tonight
have already experienced this truth more vividly than any app could teach.
You have faced a diagnosis or experienced a loss that forced you
to contemplate the fragility of human life in terrifying and life-altering ways.
A congregant recently told me
how he found himself in the hospital for three days.
He said: “I was playing golf when suddenly I felt faint
and my heart started racing so fast,
I had the thought: ‘This is it. I could die any second.’”
He is fine now, thank G-d.
He shared how his experience distilled his priorities and made him feel SO grateful—
for his family, for his very life.
Most of us would be happy never to have such a scare.
But our tradition compels every single one of us to really confront our mortality—
once a year—on Yom Kippur. 

In fact, our ancestors intentionally fashioned Yom Kippur
as a dress rehearsal for our own deaths;
we deny ourselves food and drink, we refrain from sexual relations,
and we recite the Viddui, our deathbed confession of sins.
On Yom Kippur, we contemplate whether we will be written in the Book of Life
and actually chant a litany of the many ways we could die:
“who by fire, who by water.”
Traditional Jews even dress in a white kittel, or burial shroud, for Yom Kippur services. 

But the purpose of all of this is to come out of the holiday with a feeling of intense joy.
Because, after facing the undeniable reality that we are all dying—
we are more fully aware that we’re not dead yet. 
We get another chance. 
Not just to live, but to live better. 
Facing death urges us to heal relationships,
to make amends, to be more grateful—
to truly live the life we want to live. 
And Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to restart, to repent and repair
and this leads us to profound joy.

The Chassidic tradition teaches that the cultivation of simcha
should be the primary aim of a religious Jew.
The ancient psalmist instructs: Ivdu et HaShem b’simcha,
“Serve God with Joy.”
Being joyful is not just an “optional extra” in Judaism—
it is the very foundation of a spiritual life.

And when the Israelites don’t have joy—the worst things can happen.
Deuteronomy lays out a list of horrific punishments, curses,
and natural disasters that will plague us on our journey
if we do not “serve God with joy and gladness of heart!”2 

It feels like we’re living through one of those Biblical periods
of punishment right now, doesn’t it? 
With endless wars, corrupt governments, millions of displaced refugees,
devastating fires and the recent Hurricane Florence
which flooded our neighbors to the South. 
It’s felt pretty hard to muster up gladness. 
Reading the news has become an exercise in despair. 
The New York Times even felt obliged to create a new section
called “The Week in Good News.” 
It’s a very short section. 

So in a time like this—how do we fulfill the commandment to find joy?
One could ask, is it even RIGHT to feel joy in a time like this—
when there is so much destruction and pain in the world?
Judaism teaches us, YES.
Despite the suffering, or perhaps because of it—we must respond with joy

The holiday that immediately follows Yom Kippur,
Sukkot, is known as Zman Simchateinu—the season of our rejoicing.
The proximity of the two holidays is intentional:
after surviving the death-rehearsal of Yom Kippur,
we are instructed to drive the first nail into our Sukkah
and rejoice in our thanksgiving holiday.
On Sukkot, we are commanded: V’Samachta b’hagecha: 
“you shall be joyful in your Festival.”

How can Judaism command us to be joyful?
The key is in the translation:
We should understand V’Samachta B’hagecha not as you “shall feel joy”
but rather that you “shall rejoice.”
We are not commanded to FEEL; we are commanded to DO.
On Sukkot our tradition asks us to perform actions that lead to joy,
including eating and drinking with friends and guests, and sitting in nature.

We are also instructed to read from the Book of Ecclesiastes,
which is perhaps the most melancholy book of the entire Hebrew Bible. 
It begins Haveil Havalim hakol havel, which translates:
“It’s Meaningless, Meaningless!—Everything is meaningless!” 
You may wonder why our ancestors
wanted us to read Ecclesiastes during our season of rejoicing
This book is ascribed to King Solomon who had it all:
palaces from Egypt to the Euphrates,
more gold than he could count, and 700 wives.
But he realized that no matter how much he had,
like the poorest person in his kingdom, he too would die. 
And none of his riches were coming with him. 
In the words of Ecclesiastes: “So I commend enjoyment in life,
because there is nothing better for a person under the sun
than to eat and drink and be glad.”
Solomon understood that our only response to mortality
is to embrace joy in the life we have now. 

But many of us know, embracing joy is not always easy,
and I don’t want to minimize the effort it can take.
The philosopher Kierkegaard wrote, “It takes religious courage to rejoice.” 
As a rabbi who sees struggle and illness, depression and loss up close on a daily basis
and who has faced pain in my own life,
it’s too simplistic to say to someone, “Cheer up.”
That’s not what our tradition expects and that’s not what I’m advocating. 
But I invite you to seriously consider how our tradition puts joy
at the very center of our path forward from all that hurts us.

The 18th Century Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav
showed us what that courage might look like. 
Nachman was a charismatic leader
with thousands of students who followed his every teaching.
But he also endured bouts of debilitating depression.
This brilliant leader wrote about his challenge to seek out joy when he despaired,
and he instructed: “If you don’t feel happy, pretend to be.
Even if you are depressed, put on a smile. Act happy. Genuine joy will follow.” 

I asked Dr. Alan Schlechter, a lifelong Central Synagogue member
and NYU professor of the Science of Happiness, about the viability of this approach. 
He explained that Rabbi Nachman’s suggestion is now called “Behavioral Activation,”
and one of the top treatments for depression today.
In Dr. Schlechter’s words,
“The method insists we start doing the things that can bring us joy,
even if they are not making us feel the way they used to. 
In the doing, the feelings will change.”

Rabbi Nachman, despite his struggle with depression, understood simcha
as the ultimate religious obligation.
He knew that joyfulness was not just a discretionary emotion,
but a daily choice:
a decision to actively rejoice in the face of our suffering,
with faith—that joy will come.

How might each of us make that choice: to take one step towards joy,
from wherever we are right now?
What would it look like if this year on the Festival of Sukkot
we followed the command: V’Samachta B’Chagecha—that “we shall be joyful” ?

I invite you to try three acts of rejoicing this Sukkot,
three interpretations of Sukkot mitzvot
that are proven by 3000 years of our tradition,
and even by recent scientific studies, to bring people more joy. 

The first is Ushpizin, which in Aramaic means “guests.”
On Sukkot, the mystics suggested we open our sukkah
to seven exalted guests—ancient ancestors like Abraham and Moses.
We call to mind these formidable figures
who have shaped our people in a significant way
and invite them into our sukkah.

But you don’t need a physical sukkah to rejoice with Ushpizin.
For this upcoming sukkot, make a list of seven guests
you might invite into your metaphorical sukkah.
Think of seven people you have not seen or been in touch with for a while,
who had an impact on you. 
Maybe your list includes a favorite college professor, a high school coach,
a piano teacher, an old friend, or a distant relative.
Each day of the seven days of sukkot, single out one person on your list—
just one—and CONNECT.
Write them an email or letter sharing what they mean to you.
Not only will you bring them joy when they hear from you,
but the simple act of writing to them
will bring a deep sense of joy to YOU. 

The second mitzvah is expressing gratitude.
Sukkot is the original Thanksgiving harvest festival—
when our ancestors reaped the bounty of their fields.
We cannot take in this abundance without offering thanks. 
A 2016 Harvard University study officially linked the act of expressing gratitude
with increased happiness. 
It may sound simplistic, but the results are anything but:
people who write down what they’re grateful for actually feel more content. 

So each night, before you go to bed,
I want you to think of two things for which you are grateful
and go the extra step of writing them down. 
It makes a difference. 
They can be big or small.
Try not to repeat the same thing more than once—
I don’t want you to write, “I’m grateful for my rabbi,” every night.

And finally, the mitzvah of Kindness. 
On sukkot, we dwell in a flimsy booth,
to remind us of our humble origins and the fragility of our lives.
Admittedly, finding a sukkah here in New York City is a real challenge,
but you can still live in this vulnerability. 
The sukkah compels us not only to be grateful for what we have,
but to share it.
And nothing brings more joy than giving to others, especially acts of kindness.
When we are kind, we place the interest of another before our own self-interest,
which leads to connectedness, which leads to simcha, which leads to more kindness—
a virtuous circle. 
You will be amazed at how contagious kindness can be.

Several years ago,
a woman pulled into a Starbucks drive-thru at 7AM
in St. Petersburg Florida to buy herself an iced coffee
and decided spontaneously to pay for the drink
ordered by the person in the car behind her. 
When the woman behind her pulled up,
she was so taken by this act of generosity from a stranger,
her heart was moved to do the same thing for the person behind her.
This joy and generosity went on and on,
in an unbroken kindness chain, well into the evening.
Really! You can Google many articles about it—
and also read about the schmo who decided to end the chain. 
In the end, one simple act of generosity
connected over 375 strangers in one big, beautiful simcha.

So, this sukkot, try doing three random acts of kindness a day.
Stop to talk to an elderly neighbor, even if you’re in a rush.
Keep some singles in your pocket to give to people in need.
Pay an unexpected compliment to a colleague at work.
Count your acts of kindness and write them down. 
Studies show that being conscious of simple acts we do for others,
leads to more kindness—and joy. 
Then watch how your small kindnesses ripple out and touch others.

So here’s the formula for rejoicing this Sukkot:
it’s as easy as 1-2-3
Each day, connect with 1 person,
take note of 2 Gratitudes
and perform 3 Random Acts of Kindness. 
Start on Sunday night, September 23rd, that’s when Sukkot begins
and continue for each of the seven days of the holiday, through Sept 30th. 
You will each receive a “Joy is Central” notebook on your way out—
your Yom Kippur party favor—so you can keep track of your “rejoicing.”
Those of you watching virtually can view/download a copy of the notebook or use any notebook you already have.

Just imagine if, during this Sukkot, our entire Central community,
along with our ever-expanding virtual community, fulfilled the mitzvah to rejoice,
and did the acts that truly bring simcha to ourselves and to others? 
Think of how many people we could touch!
Instead of feeling despair during these polarizing, heartbreaking times,
we could start a joyful revolution. 
And it doesn’t have to end with Sukkot.
Look for “Joy is Central” events throughout the coming year
where we will explore how our tradition
teaches us to bring more simcha into our lives. 

The Torah instructs us: V’samachta b’hagecha
you shall rejoice in your festival.
On this Yom Kippur—embrace the joy this day can bring.
Feel the joy in cleansing our souls and refreshing our commitments.
Feel the joy in repentance, because we get a another chance.
Feel the joy when the gates of Neilah close and you realize—
you get the gift of another day.

In 5779, let this joyful revolution begin.

1Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 30b
2Deuteronomy 28:47