The following was my Yom Kippur day-time sermon from yesterday:
Just this summer, my family and I returned to the US and made Pennsylvania our home after living and working in eastern Canada these last few years. Immediately, I was struck by the PennDOT slogan emblazoned on the state welcome signs: Pursue Your Happiness.
This slogan felt like an especially auspicious caption for this new exciting journey in our lives. When I sat down at a local DOT to be photographed for my own, new PA drivers license, the clerk reassured me,
“You can smile. This isn’t New Jersey.”
(It’s true, actually: you are not allowed to smile on an NJ drivers’ license, but here, you are!)
In all seriousness, happiness is something I have deeply felt since joining Beth El.
I have long associated the holiday of Yom Kippur with joy. In fact, you might even hear me wish you a “chag sameach” on this day. I say this very intentionally, for both personal and cosmic reasons.
Erev Yom Kippur will always be a time of unparalleled joy for me. Seven years ago, just before I was about to head down to the West Village to lead High Holiday services, I spent “erev erev” (the night before the night before) Yom Kippur at my 350 sq ft Lower Harlem palace-of-awesome apartment enjoying the most exhilarating jam session and exchange of ideas with a new JTS rabbinical school friend. As my companion began to head out the door at 3am, his suitcase in hand, about to catch his train to travel to his respective pulpit, I summoned every last ounce of courage in me and asked him to wait one extra moment. “?אתה מוכן” I asked him, meaning “Are you ready?”
“For my train?” he asked, somewhat confused. No, I meant to spend the rest of our lives together.
Thank G-d, Jonah didn’t run screaming, but instead left with a glowing smile and even made his train. Did I mention we had just met and were not even in a relationship? But the rest was history. If you can’t be vulnerable and take life-changing risks on erev erev Yom Kippur, then when can you?
But there is a reason for all of us to rejoice on Yom Kippur. In addition to the joy we derive from forgiveness for our wrongdoings and release from our vows from the previous year, there is also a tradition that the second tablets of the law were given to us on this day.
But the rabbis point to another, rather surprising, reason for rejoicing on this day:
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, the leader of his generation, recounts the tradition of young women dancing on this day. Imagine a Yom Kippur service in which we danced ecstatically instead of sitting quietly in rows behind prayer books.
Though many may not automatically associate Yom Kippur with happiness, our sages in the Talmud teach that Yom Kippur is one of the two happiest days on the Jewish calendar:
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says, “There were never happier days for the Jews like the fifteen of Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days, the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such. These dresses required immersion in a mikveh. The daughters of Jerusalem would go and dance in the vineyards and say, ‘young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose. Do not look for beauty, look for family, as it is stated in Proverbs (31) ‘grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, a woman that is G-d fearing is to be praised.'” (BT Ta’anit 30b)
Clearly, Rabbi Joseph Caro, legalist, mystic, and author of the Shulchan Arukh, the authoritative 16th century code of Jewish law, understood the importance of joy and the tremendous strength it requires. He concluded Orach Hayyim, the fourth section of the Shulchan Arukh, channeling the book of Proverbs with the words וטוב לב משתה תמיד, a good heart is a perpetual celebration. And here is how he began the Shulchan Arukh:
I have placed G-d before me always” – this is a great rule in the Torah and for all achievement…A person should not be embarrassed in front of others who mock him in his service to G-d. Even when he is alone…he should know before Whom he stands.
You might wonder how this passage relates to joy,
but it absolutely does, in the sense that the opposite of shame, arguably the most potent, negative force in our lives, is joy, the greatest positive force in our lives. When we serve G-d, truly, we close out our shame and thus open ourselves up to joy.
What an important lesson! From beginning to end, our service to G-d is and should be with joy. But that happiness can be a struggle, at times, especially when we are honest with our most visceral emotions and honest selves.
Achieving authentic joy is work. And it is not easy.
Composed of the same letters, the Hebrew words b’simcha (“joyously”) and machshava (“thought”) present these letters in a different order. From this we can appreciate how joy is not an automatic reaction or an easily-achieved experience, but rather the fruit of a hard-working mind.
It’s hard work to be happy.
We can read the news, easily despair and even feel fury – G-d forbid, at each other, G-d forbid at G-d. Our tradition teaches us that in such moments of heated anger we should approach neither prayer nor Jewish ritual.
Instead, in those moments of burning rage, we must “stop, drop, and roll”: pause to explore your soul, drop to your knees, be vulnerable, and “roll” with it – learn how to rise to your feet and transform your rage into constructive, positive change, replete with a loving attitude.
The Talmud describes how when we are summoned for final judgement before the Divine, we will not be called to defend our mistakes, but to explain those moments in which we could have been happy, but chose not to be.
I invite you right now to direct your attention to the deceptively simple Hebrew message up over our ark, here on the bima. It says, Ivdu et Hashem b’simcha – serve G-d with joy.
So what, exactly, do we mean by joy?
Our society places great pressure on us to “perform our happiness.” I distinctly recall a billboard I saw, which resonated all too deeply, when Jonah and I honeymooned in southern Italy.
“Do you feel like you have to perform your vacations?” the sign asked. In other words, are we even stressing our supposed moments of leisure, in attempt to attain some pre-conceived notion of happiness?
There I was, fretting over every last detail of our trip, adamant it must be “perfect,” and realizing I was falling flat. The weather was not cooperating, and with the rain, my meticulously-planned itinerary was in shambles. “You know what,” I turned to Jonah, “let’s scrap this whole plan. We’re here together and that truly is all that matters right now.” And out we ventured in the rain, exploring the Amalfi coast, in joy.
Judaism’s version of joy is not one of superficial, glitzy pleasure, but one of deep connection and meaning. And I would even go as far to argue that one cannot experience this joy in its most genuine form, unless one’s heart has been irreparably cracked, like those first tablets given to us via Moses atop Sinai so many years ago.
I was recently re-reading the late great Yochanan Muffs’ tremendous work, Love and Joy: Law, Language, and Religion in Ancient Israel and found myself once again deeply moved by his understanding of both love and joy in the biblical context, not so much as an easy emotion, but as a commitment. A commitment to concrete action which affirms and renews our covenant with the Divine each day.
Psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl taught us that “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or avoid pain, but rather to see meaning in his life.”
Our joy is expressed not through superficial, physical, or emotional gratification, but through the sustained, deep acknowledgement of being embedded in something much larger than ourselves.
Though sources for the importance of joy abound in the Torah, joy was of particularly central concern to the greats of the Hasidic tradition.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who interestingly, was said to have suffered from a deep depression most of his life, famously repeated: “It is a great mitzvah to remain in a state of happiness at all times.”
At times, it seems to me that our society fetishizes joy.
Don’t get me wrong – joy is important, joy is healthy, but we all know that someone’s hearty laugh or broad smile is all too often a shield for tremendous spiritual and emotional anguish.
One need only consider the skyrocketing rates of opioid addicts and other chemical dependencies of those around us to appreciate just how very broken our generation is. In light of this brokenness, perhaps we need to re-orient our energies away from the often-futile pursuit of happiness and instead rededicate our efforts to extend ourselves to our suffering brothers and sisters achieve a sense of groundedness and meaning in their lives. In connecting to each other, we will ultimately begin to access some glimmer of that elusive joy we all seek.
But how, practically, do we achieve this joy?
This morning, I offer two opening steps to getting there:
1) Remove toxic influences and impediments to your self-actualization – or what we might call “Marie Kondo’ing your trauma”
We have all found ourselves, at some point, held back by someone or something which is not only hurting us but inhibiting our very ability to be ourselves.
Perhaps this a toxic work situation or an abusive relationship.
Whatever it is, it is terrifying – but also absolutely essential – to separate oneself from toxic forces. If I have learned one thing in my own life, it is that our time is too precious to squander on places and people who are not right now in the position to love authentically, believe in you, and offer appropriate respect to your potential.
I am reminded of a dear friend and former colleague of mine from the University of Minnesota who was screening to his undergraduate Cultural Studies class Barbara Kopple’s 1976 iconic documentary Harlan County USA, which chronicled the very challenging plight of coal miners in rural Kentucky.
Upon viewing this film, the students’ immediate question was, “well why didn’t they just leave?”
Leaving isn’t always so easy. And perhaps it isn’t even the right decision sometimes.
Committing ourselves to hard situations and improving our lot and the lot of the others is a noble calling and can be deeply rewarding.
But it’s also important to protect oneself.
There are also times when we are trapped within social structures in which it is impossible or nearly impossible to leave. For example, children ensnared in abusive situations often find themselves trapped. But to every young person here, let me remind you that we are here for you, as a community. If someone, whether a relative, a neighbour, or a teacher, is doing something which is dangerously hurtful to you, please reach out to an adult you trust. No one deserves abuse.
And so sometimes leaving is necessary.
This is hard advice to give, as we are a people who can and should believe in others’ potential and the importance of second chances, especially on this holiest of days, the Day of Judgment, but my hindsight insight is that our energies are always best invested in places and people where we can do our most authentic, best work, with the right allies and support system to find our calling.
And this ties into my second recommended step for achieving joy:
2) Actively and aggressively pursue your calling.
On Rosh haShanah, as you may recall, I spoke on the second morning of how each of us possesses at least one unique gift to share with the world. This is our God–given calling, from which we must not shirk. This is precisely the message of the eternally true Book of Jonah, which we hope to read later today at mincha, a book about the danger of not heeding your divine calling and running the other way. Of pitying one’s self and obsessing over a plant when, meanwhile, other people’s very lives are at stake. Of particular note is how Jonah is described as experiencing “great joy” over this plant; arguably the one time in the TaNaKh when joy is in reference to a material object.
Go out there and do something that brings you great joy. What a waste not to. Insist that your days be filled with activity that highlights your God-given strengths and taps into your infinite potential. Surround yourself with people you can love, who can love you and bolster each other like it’s your job – because it is.
From there, I guarantee you will find joy.
or should I say….chag sameach!