Yom Kippur: A Journey Towards Happiness

If asked to describe Yom Kippur in one word, I’d venture a guess that “Happiness” wouldn’t be the first word that came to mind. Surprisingly, some of our earliest rabbinic texts describe Yom Kippur as one of the most joyous days of the year.[1]

I chose to be a rabbi because I find immense joy in praying with my Jewish community, reading Torah, and observing the Holy Days. Even I wouldn’t have described Yom Kippur as “happy.”

In preparing for this sermon, I went to a rabbi’s most sacred source, Facebook. I posted the question: “What is happiness to you?” Responses included warm puppies, being with people I love, doing things that I love, drinking wine on the patio during sunset, seeing my children happy and thriving, studying Torah, and making a difference.

Somehow fasting, pounding our chests and atoning didn’t make the list.

As I prepared for this year something interesting happened. I began to understand the joy our Rabbis found on Yom Kippur. While it may not feel like the happiest day of the year, its teachings and traditions offer us the opportunity to reflect, connect, atone, forgive, and feel motivated to do some good in the world. These values permeate throughout Yom Kippur’s powerful teachings and traditions. If we let them, they can inspire us to live happier and more fulfilling lives.

And who among us doesn’t want to be happier?

According to the recent Harris Poll, only 1 in 3 people consider themselves very happy. In fact, since the poll began in 2008, the happiness index has been consistent, with 30-35% describing themselves as happy. 30-35%. That means that 65-70% of us do not describe ourselves as happy.

Perhaps that is why positive psychology became so popular. In 1998, Martin Seligman picked up on the term, which originates from psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow[2]. Inspired by Maslow’s teachings, Seligman believed it was time to focus more attention on fostering well-being in individuals and in communities. Seligman began to research the practices of happy people, to find keys to happiness.

He was not alone. By 2002, there was the First International Conference on Positive Psychology. By 2006, Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shehar’s class, famously nicknamed “Happiness 101” had become a rousing success, attracting hundreds of students, and the media. Today, libraries and bookstores are lined with books about how to find happiness.

The quest for happiness, of course, began well before 1950s. It dates back at least 2000 years, with the book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally attributed to King Solomon. In it, Solomon documents his quest for happiness.

Solomon’s journey towards happiness begins with a desire to “drink and be merry.” Perhaps he would be happy enjoying lavish meals, pampering himself, and focusing on the hedonistic desire to bring more joy into his life.

Advertisements today feed on this belief system. Each day we are bombarded by upwards of 3000 ads. They all tout the same message: You deserve to be happy. You are unhappy. Buy our product and you will be happy. Want to be more energetic, increase performance, concentration, and jumpstart your metabolism? “Red Bull will give you wings.” You are lonely and looking for a mate? Buy Axe body spray, and women will be falling over themselves to be near you. Want to be happy? Just buy a bottle of Coca-Cola, and “open happiness,” or “Get in” to a Volkswagen, and “get happy.”

The marketing works. Although the vast majority of us will say that we do not buy products because of an advertisement, research shows that ads increase sales substantially. Commercialism has so seeped into our culture that we may not even be aware of its subtle influence on our psyches.

We know that all our dreams won’t come true just because we buy a drink, body spray or a car, but we’re still a little disappointed that they don’t. Each time, we’re let down. We begin to wonder if there is something wrong with us.

Yom Kippur is the antidote to such feelings. On this day we fast, refrain from wearing our nicest shoes and clothing. Traditionally, we don a kittle—a simple white garment in which we will one day be buried. We spend the entire day in the temple, apart from commercialism and promises of an easy fix to our emotional woes. We spend the entire day focused on what really matters.

King Solomon quickly learned that although his hedonistic lifestyle offered temporary enjoyment, it did not make him happy in the deepest sense of the word. No simple pleasure could bring about a lasting and fulfilling form of happiness.

Perhaps a larger achievement would. Solomon set his sights on acquiring a great deal of wealth. He was sure that if he builds the greatest mansions and vineyards, and acquired the most attentive servants, then he would be happy at last.

In his book, Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar discusses winning the Israeli national squash championship at the age of sixteen. He recalls,

“For five years I had trained for the event, I felt that something important was missing from my life—something that all of the miles run, the weights lifted, the self-motivating speeches playing and replaying in my mind were not providing. But I believed it that it was only a matter of time before that ‘missing something’ would find its way into my life.”

When he won the championship. He was ecstatic. He had never been happier. He was sure that all his sacrifice had paid off. After celebrating, he went to his room, taking in the emotions of the day. Then, he says, “Suddenly, without warning, the bliss that came from having attained in real life, what had for so long been my most cherished and exalted fantasy disappeared, and my feeling of emptiness returned.”

Like Tal Ben-Shehar, Solomon is shocked to find that his achievements do not bring him the kind of happiness he desires. “Even with all this, I am still unhappy,” he says. “Nothing can help me.”

In 1965, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote a book entitled Lonely Man of Faith. In it he describes two opposing sides of our nature: Adam 1 and Adam 2.

Adam 1 is the side of our nature that wishes to conquer the world. It gives us the ambition to succeed. It drives us to get into that Ivy League college, to become a partner in that law firm, to achieve accolade after accolade, success after success. In his New York Times article “The Moral Bucket List,” David Brooks refers to these successes as our “resume virtues.” This side of ourselves is important. Without it, we could not achieve a fraction of what we do.

Adam 2 strives not to conquer the world, but to understand it. He seeks not to change it, but to find his moral compass within it. At times, he is willing to sacrifice his own success for the greater good. He cares most about charity, love, and redemption.

Adam 2 focuses not on “resume virtues,” but “eulogy virtues,” argues David Brooks.[3] These are the values spoken of at your funeral. Were you kind, and brave? Were you honest and faithful? Were you compassionate and sincere? Did you make others feel good about themselves? Were you capable of deep love?[4] These values are associated with Adam 2.

We are made of up of both Adam 1 and Adam 2. We need both to succeed and to be happy. “We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life.” [5] We do a great job of developing Adam 1, but we lack the societal resources to develop Adam 2.

On Yom Kippur that changes. For an entire day, we are reminded over and over again that we are mortal. Life comes to an end. This realization inspires us to consider the legacy we will one day leave behind. What will people say at our funerals? Yom Kippur is a much-needed opportunity to focus on Adam 2. On this day of rest, we have the gift of considering what in life is most important to us. This reflection can lead us to powerful insights about who we are, and who we wish to become.

Solomon, too, yearned for respite from his everyday life. He sought happiness in his thoughts and his studies. He believed that perhaps by detaching himself from the pain of the world, he could find happiness.

A day of detachment and reflection can offer us the inspiration we need, but when one day turned into weeks, Solomon had enough. He felt isolated and alone.

If Yom Kippur was solely about introspection, we could spend the day at home, fasting and meditating. But the Torah teaches “It is not good for a human to be alone.” [6] A commentary adds, “Do not separate yourself from the community”[7] Yom Kippur is a communal experience. We pray together. We fast together. We atone together. We forgive one other. We lean on one another.

Yom Kippur reminds us that no matter what, we have our Jewish community. In facing our mortality side by side, we heighten those bonds.

“Life is about loving and being loved,” wrote Rabbi Harold Kushner. “It is about savoring the beauty of moments that don’t last, the sunsets, the leaves turning color, the rare moments of true human communication.”

As we stand together today, and throughout the High Holy Days, we discover that the Jewish community can be part of the journey towards living a happier life.

After feeling dissatisfied by detachment and stoicism, Solomon turns to his fourth and final attempt at happiness. He ends the book of Ecclesiastes saying: “The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe God’s commandments. For this applies to all humankind.”[8]

Following the commandments isn’t always easy. They are what bring us here today, pounding our chests and atoning for our sins. Even in this practice, we may find happiness. On a daily basis, we might not have the opportunity to nurture Adam 2, forgive, or atone for our sins.[9] We might not consider the importance of community, or reflect about the legacy we wish to leave behind.

We come here on Yom Kippur, because each of these things may not come naturally, but we need them all to live fulfilling and happy lives.

Ecclesiastes’ final words express a need and desire to connect to something larger.[10] “The great and glorious masterpiece of man is to live with purpose,” teaches French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne.

Yom Kippur implores us to search within our souls: what are we called to do? This calling may not be our job. We pick up a violin and know that we were made to make music. We interact with children, and we feel called to teach and inspire them. We watch a loved one suffer, and we feel called to advocate for others like her.

As Holocaust Survivor Victor Frankl writes in “Man’s Search for Meaning,” we can find redemptive meaning in even our most painful experiences. Indeed, there we need it the most.

As human beings, we crave meaning. We crave purpose. It inspires us. It calls us It pushes us to live meaningful, worthwhile lives.

Inspired by the insight of his meditations, Solomon feels called to action. He turns to the commandments and to the beauty of his tradition. That is where, in the end, he finds happiness.

This evening, we will stand before the open ark, as the sun begins to set. As our tummies grumble, may we will remember what matters most in our lives. As we atone, may we remember to forgive. As we offer our prayers, may we feel a profound connection to our Jewish community, and to one another. As we speak to God, may we feel a connection to something greater than ourselves. As we hear the shofar’s final call, may we feel motivated to create the life we envision for ourselves—a life of vision and profound meaning. May we leave here fulfilled, on our journey towards Happiness. That is, after all, what Yom Kippur is all about.

[1] Mishnah found in Taanit 26b cites 2nd century Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel as the source of this teaching.

[2] American psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow first used the term “positive psychology” in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality.

[3] David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character

[4] “The Moral Bucket List” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/opinion/sunday/david-brooks-the-moral-bucket-list.html?_r=0

[5] David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character

[6] Genesis 2:18

[7] Pirkei Avot 2:5

[8] Ecclesiastes 12:13; 12:14

[9] Taanit 30b and Bava Batra 121a teach “Now it is understandable [that] Yom Kippur [is considered a festive and  joyous day] since it is [a day of] forgiveness and pardon and [since it was the day on which the Second tablets were Given.’”

[10] These four stages in Ecclesiastes’ journey to happiness were inspired by the work of Rabbi Evan Moffic in The Happiness Prayer.

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