Yom Kippur: Oh, Happy Day!

Is Yom Kippur a solemn day, or a happy one?  It may seem a strange question.  Yom Kippur is the ultimate day of Jewish prayer, humility, repentance, and self-denial, including fasting.  How, therefore, can it be “happy?”  

Reaffirming our acceptance of G-d’s sovereignty was the main theme of Rosh Hashanah (Avinu Malkenu – “Our father, our King,” HaMelech HaKadosh -- “The Holy King,” etc.).  Accepting G-d’s grace – that is, being forgiven though we don’t deserve it -- is the main theme of Yom Kippur. 

The peak of the Ten Days of Awe occurs during the Kol Nidre service when, according to our liturgy, “v’yomer Adonai, salachti ci’dvarecha: And G-d said, I forgive you in accordance with your request.”  We have not just been granted “’Sovereign’ Immunity” for our breaches against G-d, we have been cleansed of them.  (For sins against people, however, we must apologize, make restitution, and change our behavior). 

The purpose of prayer, humility, repentance, and fasting on Yom Kippur is to seek, receive, and experience this Divine expiation of our sins.  We become spiritually pure once again.  During the rest of Yom Kippur, we can admit, confess, pour out, and release all of our guilt for sins against G-d, knowing that we have been forgiven.  What joy!  

Our fast (and our wearing of white, including Tallit at night, the only time all year), therefore, are symbols of purity sought and achieved.   This is why Yom Kippur can be regarded as the happiest of Jewish holidays!  Our fast is one of cleansing, not one of suffering.  

Some years ago, a song climbed the pop music charts with these lyrics:

Oh Happy Day,
Oh Happy Day,
When Jesus washed our sins away.

Jews need only amend the last line to “G-d washes” in order to perfectly summarize the philosophy of Yom Kippur.  Or, to borrow another familiar phrase, on Yom Kippur, “Jews aren’t perfect; just forgiven.”  To confess and to be forgiven for one’s wrongs is difficult, humbling, exhausting, even traumatic; and yet, its resulting feeling of release is surely one of life’s greatest joys.    

But what about those of us who do not accept this philosophy, and perhaps don’t believe in G-d at all?  We and those whom we care about can still benefit if we act “as if.”   We’re safer drivers when we pretend that a police car is behind us.  We act more prudently when we imagine that people whom we want to impress are aware of our behavior.  Similarly, if we want to become better people, we can act as though there is a G-d who has set a code of conduct, is aware of our behavior, who judges us, and who forgives sincere repentance.  Belief isn’t irrelevant to Judaism, but righteous, “holy” behavior is much more important, even if a psychological “ploy” is used to induce it.  We can role-play to become better Jews.   

In any case, may your Yom Kippur be one of great spiritual cleansing, purity, and happiness.

Shabbat shalom v’g’mar chatimah tovah; May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year!    

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3