A Time of Joy?

“V’samachta B’chagecha,” “Moadim L’simcha,” the buses in Israel proclaim the wish for a happy, joyous holiday to all from the front and rear of each bus. As soon as Yom Kippur ends and the public transportation resumes these holiday greetings fill the thoroughfares of Jerusalem. And, as the sound of succah construction and the sight of felled branches fill the streets, I am joyously reminded that I am, indeed, living in my land, and that there is nowhere else in the world where a Jew can feel so…..Jewish.  But the emotional transformation from Yom Kippur to Succot was, for me, always more complex than changing the signs on a bus.  After all, Yom Kippur is the spiritual highpoint of the year while Succot is, well, fun, enjoyable, even lighthearted.  But recently, that struggle no longer haunted me-for I no longer struggled.  Allow me to explain.

I was always proud of the Yom Kippur services in my synagogue.  As a congregational Rabbi, I always strived to make the tefillot both participative and meaningful.  And, for the most part, I think I succeeded.  I have always believed that the Yom Kippur service must stand out above the Shabbat and Yom Tov prayers in creating a special atmosphere of sanctity and sobriety, which is why I eschewed an extended “recess,” and limited the “required” break to about one hour.

At the end of the day, I left the synagogue inspired, committed to improve and feeling closer to both G-d and Man.

But I never left shul with feelings of overwhelming joy.  In fact, I never fully comprehended the Mishnaic statement (Ta’anit; 4, 8) that there were no better days than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur when the unmarried girls would dance in the vineyards and call to the young men to choose a bride.

On holy Yom Kippur?

The most solemn day on the calendar?

The day of fasting and repentance?

Furthermore, our Rabbis stated that we should feel joy, if not ecstasy, after Yom Kippur, confident that G-d will grant us the forgiveness we prayed for.

But I did not feel this “ecstasy,”  nor did I understand how one could transform a day of such gravity and solemnity into a time of joy and happiness.

Yet, these conflicting moods was what was expected of me on this holy day and immediately afterward-especially as the celebration Succot, the Festival of Joy, followed a mere five days after Yom Kippur.

I was baffled and troubled…..until I spent my first Yom Kippur in Israel.

It was six years ago, toward the end of our six-month sabbatical, when we celebrated (yes, celebrated!) Yom Kippur in Alon Shvut, as guests of former synagogue members.  It was there that I learned how this holiest of days could be marked with great solemnity, with great intensity and gravity…..and with great joy!  The sincere supplications and heartfelt prayers that reminded us of our shortcomings evoked tears of regret and remorse, while the emotional recollection of the Yom Kippur service in the Holy Temple magically erased two-thousand years of exile as we joined in a jubilant chant that brought tears of bliss to our eyes.

By the time the closing service had been completed I had been transformed and uplifted.  I left the synagogue inspired, committed to improve and feeling closer to both G-d and Man, as I had in the past.  But it was different.  This time, I felt as if I floated out of the synagogue as tears of sorrow had been transformed into tears of joy.  I was filled with ecstasy and overwhelming happiness.

And I finally understood what our Rabbis meant. And what Yom Kippur meant.

The experience had me rethink my previous assumptions about Yom Kippur and, only recently, I realized that it wasn’t the Day of Atonement that I had to redefine-it was the concept of joy.

We tend to equate joy with celebration: carefree partying, unrestrained laughter and even uncontrolled wildness.  All of these emotions often accompany joy, even reflect happiness-but they do not bring happiness nor cause joy.  As a result, we often feel that seriousness and solemnity conflicts with joy and happiness, so we believe that Yom Kippur cannot leave us happy and that Succot can never be serious.

This is simply not true.

Happiness comes from within-it comes from an inner peace brought about by a satisfaction with who you are and what direction you follow.  It can be found in the secure belief that the values you pursue are worth the sacrifice and dedication.  One can, therefore, be solemn and happy or, conversely, seemingly lighthearted yet troubled.  It is the celebration of Purim vs. the observance of Simchat Torah.  On Purim, when we mark the insecurity of life in the Diaspora, we are obligated to drink in order to create an artificial joy, one brought on by exterior stimuli. Succot, our Festival of Joy, requires no drinking and Simchat Torah is not a time of wildness.  The joy of these days comes from within.  And that inner peace is brought on by the soul-searching of Yom Kippur.

Over forty years ago, in 1973, I had a post-Succot conversation with a cousin of mine living in Jerusalem.  He told me that he, together with most citizens of Israel, had just fulfilled one of the most difficult mitzvot imaginable.  He had danced and rejoiced over the holiday at a time when so many friends and relatives were still fighting a war of survival in which many had already given their lives and many might still.

“How did you do it?” I asked him.

“We all had to dig deep down to find the joy within ourselves,” he responded, “because there was no joy to be found outside.”

A recent poll taken by the European Social Survey revealed that, as in the past, Israelis rank among the happiest people in the world, significantly beating the scores of the most wealthy of European nations including Britain, France and Italy.

But what glee do Israelis find when war threatens them every day?  What happiness can we feel when our children risk their lives daily at border crossings, roadblocks and demonstrations?  How can there be joy and ecstasy living in a world of Yom Kippur?  And as I write these very words, I am forced to add: How can we celebrate a holiday while we bury a remarkable couple who leave young orphans, victims of the latest inhuman outrage perpetrated on our nation?

We can do so only when we realize that true joy is found in the knowledge of who we are and in the pride we take in values we choose to pursue.

This, then, is the essence of “simcha,” to find the inner peace and joy in our very being, even when tragedy surrounds us.  And, for me and many others that simcha is found in the knowledge that we are, indeed, living in our land, and that there is nowhere else in the world where a Jew can feel so…..joyous.

About the Author
Rabbi Neil Winkler, founding rabbi of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, is a musmach of R.I.E.T.S. and a graduate of Yeshiva College and Bernard Revel Graduate School. He served the Fort Lee, N.J. community for 36 years and taught Jewish Studies in the Moriah School of Englewood as Coordinator of Tanach studies. Rabbi Winkler is the author of “Bringing the Prophets to Life,” an overview of the Early Prophets.