Yom Kippur – happiness and hardship
One of my fondest, most vivid memories of Yom Kippur is sitting with my friends in the anteroom of our little shul, shortly after my bar mitzva, as the day ebbed away. Dusk signaled that the fast was soon coming to an end and that meant it was time for our annual ritual of fantasizing over what scrumptious foods we planned to consume for our break-fast meal. Though pizza, hot-fudge sundaes, burgers and fries were all tantalizingly on our mental menus, we knew that we would have to get past the honey cake and kichel before we could sit down to whatever our mothers had prepared for us.
I have written on these pages how Yom Kippur, in many ways, is the happiest day of the year. How it frees us from our physical desires – if only for a day – allowing our souls to soar, and giving us an almost angelic character. How it bestows upon us the most amazing and precious gift: The ability to start over, to legitimately “whitewash” our sins so that we can again confidently lift up our face before the Creator.
There is no denying that, for most people, Yom Kippur and its set of restrictions – no work, no food, drink or bathing, no sexual intimacy – cause varying degrees of hardship, but I suggest that this, too, is not a bad thing. Suffering is an essential component of character building.
We Jews, of course, know suffering better than most – if not all – other peoples. From the very beginning, our path was anything but trouble-free and this reality is reflected in the various readings of the High Holy Days. Sarah and Hannah agonize over the lack of a child; Abraham is told both to send away his first son, Ishmael, and to sacrifice his second son, Isaac (who, at age 37, is clearly traumatized by his near-death experience).
The brutal murder of some of our greatest sages, recounted in the martyrology read on Yom Kippur, reminds us of the oppression we continually faced, and still face, from cruel tyrants and dictators. Later in the year, we will encounter efforts to deny us our religion, in the Hanukka story; the attempt to wipe us out, on Purim; and the bitter slavery we endured for more than a century, as recounted in the Passover Haggada.
Yet amazingly enough, all these formidable threats failed to destroy us, failed to remove us from the pages of history. If anything, they accomplished the very opposite of what our enemies intended. They served to steel us, to make us stronger and more resilient, preparing us to face the next crisis and go right on surviving – indeed, flourishing. Miraculously, every period of persecution we endured led to greater glory. Egyptian servitude was followed by our liberation, the giving of the Torah and our entrance to the Land of Israel; the destruction of the Temple resulted in the creation of the synagogue and our pervasive influence over the Diaspora; the horror of the Holocaust was followed close-on by the creation of the State of Israel and the ingathering of the exiles into the premier Jewish commonwealth of all time.
Just a few days ago, a poll was published proclaiming that almost 90% of Israelis – for whom complaining is almost an Olympic sport – are satisfied with their lives. This is a staggering statistic, considering the constant threats to our safety and security – not to mention the corruption, traffic congestion and high cost of living that continually confront us – and it mystifyingly blurs the line between hardship and happiness. It’s counterintuitive, but I suggest that the secret to our satisfaction actually lies in the adversity we face! It energizes and tones us, it challenges us and, most of all, it guarantees that life on a daily basis here will always be stimulating and never, ever dull. The net result is that when all is said and done and we somehow succeed in getting through our problems, we feel very good about ourselves.
Actor George Sanders was a man who seemingly had everything: Beautiful wives (he was married to both Zsa Zsa Gabor and her sister Magda); wealth and fame – he appeared in 90 films, winning an Oscar in a co-starring role with Marilyn Monroe. But when he committed suicide in 1972, he left a succinct and stunningly sarcastic note: “Dear World,” he wrote, “I am leaving because I am bored.” Thankfully, that could never, ever happen here.
Our brief encounter with deprivation over Yom Kippur helps not only to shape our spiritual side, but also to mold our moral character. When we are hungry, we can appreciate those who suffer on a regular basis from starvation. When we are weary, we can better sympathize with those who work hard every day with too little remuneration and too little acknowledgment. When our eyes fill with tears of remorse, our vision sharpens and we can more clearly see the need not only to improve ourselves, but also to improve the condition of those around us, and even to improve the world itself.
This day will go by fast – pun intended – but its hard-earned yet sweet lessons should stay with us long after the honey cake is finished. ■
A MAN walks on an empty street in Jerusalem during Yom Kippur in this file photo from 2004.