A major facet of the Jewish holidays is the element of rejoicing. At first glance, we do not associate religious observance with “having a good time.” We differentiate between the realm of religion and that of personal gratification.
The former is seen as something serious and somber in which man sacrifices personal desires to serve the A-mighty. The latter area is connected to man’s pursuit of pleasure. In America, we cherish the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Judaism affirms that observance of Torah is not contrary to man’s desire for emotional fulfillment. All of the commandments are intended to improve one’s character, increase his wisdom and refine the soul. The ultimate objective of our religion is to cause man to be in the best possible condition to live a truly fulfilling life.
The Torah is very concerned about human happiness. In the section known as “the Curses,” the explanation put forth for the most extreme Divine punishments is “because you failed to serve Hashem with gladness and a happy heart in the midst of plenty.”
The holidays are regarded as times of celebration. However, this idea is challenging when applied to the “Days of Awe,” especially Yom Kippur. This day is extremely somber as we abstain from food and drink and virtually all creature comforts. The Torah characterizes these ordinances as “affliction of the soul.” This would seem to be diametrically opposed to what people define as a time of joy.
And yet it is categorized as a holiday on which, therefore, we are supposed to be glad. How can the severe restrictions be reconciled with the obligation to rejoice?
Judaism distinguishes between pleasure and happiness. Most people pursue physical and emotional gratifications that they believe will make them happy. However, they inevitably encounter disappointment.
A person may experience pain while undergoing a therapeutic procedure that will save him from a dangerous affliction. Though he is in pain, he is extremely happy that his health is being preserved.
At the same time, one may gorge himself at a lavish banquet that feels good at the time but brings a sense of disgust when he has to deal with the consequences.
Yom Kippur is a multidimensional phenomenon. At the same time that we feel the pain of the deprivations, we are cognizant of the great gift of atonement afforded by the day and are filled with profound joy.
Maimonides in his Code combined the laws of shofar with those of Sukkot and lulav in one section. At first glance, the association is not evident. However, we must consider that it is no accident that Sukkot takes place just five days after Yom Kippur. What is the connection?
The Rambam describes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as days of awe and fear — “not excessive” joy. However on Sukkot, he says that we are enjoined to experience “additional” joy.
A great Torah scholar explained that while there is joy on Yom Kippur, it is muted. It is something we experience in the heart but can’t give tangible expression to through celebratory actions due to the limits imposed by the physical restrictions.
On Sukkot we enjoy not only the happiness intrinsic to that holiday but that of Yom Kippur as well. We bring into Sukkot the uncelebrated happiness which was generated on Yom Kippur and there is, thus, additional joy.
Judaism extols the virtue of joy in the service of Hashem. This is possible only when one cultivates a love of Torah and the virtues of justice and compassion as well as an appreciation of all of Hashem’s blessings. May we merit to attain them. JN
Rabbi Reuven Mann is the founder of Congregation Torat Emet in Phoenix.