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.