Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is filled with solemn prayer, and most Jews fast. How, then, can it be the happiest day of the year? Allow me to explain…
Picture the scene: It is 1944, in Glasgow, Scotland, in the midst of the Second World War. Kol Nidre is about to begin in the city’s largest synagogue. The sanctuary is dark and full, and the rabbi prepares to take the Torah scroll out of the ark. Before he does so, he calls upon the only soldier in uniform in the congregation to come up to the bima.
That soldier goes and holds the Torah, as the choir chants the Kol Nidre. I think about that scene every year on Yom Kippur because the man holding the Torah was my grandfather. This Yom Kippur I cannot call him and wish him a happy New Year. Yet, like many of us who have lost loved ones, I think about and feel his presence. I can hear his voice telling me little bits of wisdom he called nuggets.
My Grandfather’s Wisdom
They were serious and funny, ranging from “don’t break the silence unless you can improve upon it” to “a house without scotch is like a house without a roof.” Along with his personal example, these nuggets taught me about what makes for a good life. They taught me to live by high principles and ideals, to be loving and forgiving, and to find ways to give and contribute to the community.
Now my grandfather never put these teachings in terms of Jewish tradition. But what he taught captures three key nuggets God gives us on these high holy days: Tefilah, prayer, Teshuvah, repentance, and Tzedakah, giving and justice. We find these words in one of the most significant parts of the service: at the end of Unetanah Tokef prayer.
That is the prayer where we say, “God decides who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water…. But the prayer concludes: by Tefilah, by Teshuvah and by Tzedakah, we can annul the decree and alter our destiny.
Finding True Happiness
That is soaring vision of the prayer, and that is the message of Yom Kippur. That is the reason that, even though this is a day of fasting and atonement, our sages called it “the happiest day of the year.”
That happiness does not derive from ease. That happiness does not derive from a lack of pain. Rather, the happiness derives from the ability to choose. The happiness derives from Yom Kippur’s affirmation that every day of our lives, we can choose life and blessing.
Once upon a time, a poor man walked from town to town. He carried a heavy load on his back.
One day a wagon driver stopped his horse and offered him a ride to the next town. The grateful man said “Yes, thank you for your kindness.”
After they had gone a few minutes, the wagon driver turned around. He saw the poor man still carried the load on his back.
“You don’t need to carry that heavy load. You can put it down on the wagon.”
The poor man, “You’ve been so kind to pick me up. I can’t ask you to carry my load as well.
So the poor man kept walking from town to town, carrying and hobbling around with his heavy load.
We can lighten up
Too often we are like the poor wandering man. We carry the heavy load of anger, of regret, of grudges long after we could have set them down.
God is like the wagon driver who says we don’t have to carry them alone. God can handle them. Indeed, God can lift us up and carry us to the next stop on our journey.
This story was originally told by the traveling Jewish mystical preacher, the Magid of Dubnow.
While speaking at a church recently, I received an urgent question: “Is it okay for me to wish my Jewish friends ‘A Happy New Year’ on Rosh Hashanah?
“Absolutely,” I said. The questioner then asked what was appropriate to say on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when many Jews do not eat or drink and spend most of the day in synagogue.
I thought for a minute. My answer was a bit disappointing. About the closest we get to a customary greeting in synagogue is “Have an easy fast.”
As I thought more about it, however, I realized we have a few other possibilities:
Rosh Hashanah—The Jewish New Year
Hag Samaech, which means “A Happy Holiday.” This greeting works on most holidays. The word samaech means “happy,” but it has the connotation of a shared communal happiness. A happy holiday is one we share with our friends, family and community.
L’Shanah Tova Tikatevu, which means “May you be inscribed for a good year.” According to Jewish tradition, God has a big book with all of our names in it. It’s called the Book of Life. On Rosh Hashanah we pray God inscribes our names on the good side of the book, giving us a year of joy, health and prosperity.
Gut Yontif, which means “May this be a good holiday.” Gut Yontifis a Yiddish phrase. Yiddish was the language of many Jews who lived in Central and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—think Fiddler on the Roof. Many older Jews will use this greeting throughout the holiday.
Yom Kippur—The Day of Atonement
Tzom Kol, which means “An Easy Fast.” Fasting is not meant to make us suffer. It is meant to cleanse our bodies and spirit and help us focus on the spiritual meaning of the holiday. Thus, wishing someone an easy fast is a way of acknowledging they are fasting while expressing hope that the holiday is meaningful not painful.
Gmar Chatimah Tova, which means “May you be sealed for a good year.” This greeting brings us back to the metaphor of the Book of Life. As we conclude the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and God prepares to close the book with our fates sealed in them, we pray that each of us ends up on the right side of the ledger.
When in doubt on either of these holidays, it is always appropriate to say “Happy New Year.” What better wish can we give to one another than that we enjoy a year of health, happiness and peace.
When Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinksy married, I wrote about the religious choices they would have to make.
Those choices come into sharper focus now that they are the parents of a beautiful daughter, Charlotte. Those choices are not clear-cut or absolute.
Having worked with hundreds of interfaith couples, I can say for certain that the only right choice is the one that is right for you.
To claim children will be “psychologically confused” with two religious traditions or “have to choose between mom and dad” if they are exposed to two religions has no evidence to support it.
What we do know, however, is that having no faith or religious practice in the home leaves children bereft of the richness and wisdom of our faith traditions.
With shared hopes and dreams in mind, I offer this prayer for Charlotte and her parents.
God of all people,
We stand in awe before mystery of life.
Bless Charlotte and her parents with wisdom and joy,
mindful of the gifts and teachings You bestow on us
May she grow to fullness of body and mind,
Becoming a blessing to her family and all who know and love her.
May she learn to laugh but never forget how to cry
May she reach into the future,
But never lose touch with the past.
May her eyes be filled with the light of your teachings
Sharing and living your word every day.
We believe our lives our lives are immersed in mystery,
And that we belong to one another.
We believe that Your Presence is with us
as we gather to celebrate new life and hope.
Aware of mystery and wonder, caught in friendship and laughter,
we become speechless before the joy in our hearts as we celebrate the sacredness of life.
Do You Have Any Words of Wisdom or Blessing for Chelsea and Marc? Leave them in the Comments Below