January 28, 2020

Happy Fasting on Yom Kippur?

Could it be that Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year? 

The Talmud claims as much, but just try telling that to a bunch of hungry college students. You probably won’t like their response.

So how can we be happy on a day that can be so hard on us physically? 

One answer focuses us on the relief we get from forgiveness. Many of us are holding burdens, holding guilt, holding regret. Then Yom Kippur offers us relief.

Literally translated, Yom Kippur is “the day of wiping away,” kind of like erasing a whiteboard or cleaning a stain. Kippur/Kapparah wipes away our failures, clearing any obstacles that separate us from our highest selves and from the Divine.

But that relief isn’t free. Just like exercise or eating our veggies, it is in part our fasting that makes way for expiation. No pain, no gain. 

In fact, the Rambam explains that the loss we experience through fasting replaces the animal sacrifices that were offered in the Temple. We effect our own forgiveness instead of relying on some poor goat to die for our transgressions.

On a deeper level, the practice of fasting enables us to be more present, to seek out that spark of goodness, of sanctity. Deep within the soul of every person exists a higher consciousness, a Divine light. Regardless of how far a person has fallen into the abyss, this spark continues to burn; it is inextinguishable.

However, pleasure can distract us from going deeper. So for one day a year, we let go. In addition to not eating or drinking, traditionally we also don’t have sex, wear leather (i.e. comfortable) shoes, wash our bodies or apply lotions. 

All of this physical denial is an affliction of sorts. But it can be reframed as an opportunity, a chance to simply be, which offers us a peace and happiness far beyond what we can get from pleasure.

How can we be happy on a day that can be so hard on us physically? 

Perhaps God knew that it wasn’t going to be easy to be Jewish. So, long before cognitive behavior therapy and positive psychology, we were given rituals to take ownership over our emotional lives, the way we treat one another and the way we treat ourselves. 

According to Rav Zelig Pliskin, “Happiness is a skill that can be learned. The essential factor whether or not you will live a happy life is not based on external factors such as wealth, success or fame but on your attitudes toward life, toward yourself, toward other people and toward events and situations.”

What better opportunity do we have to cultivate kindness and happiness than when we’re “hangry”? The question is whether you allow your hunger to control you or whether you acknowledge frustration and move past it.

When I picked up the book “Happier” by Tal Ben-Shahar, I was struck by the fact that his course has become one of the most popular at Harvard. There, you have students who are at the top of the socioeconomic ladder yet they don’t feel fulfilled.

We have an enormous amount to be thankful for today, but we are plagued by anxiety and sadness. We feel overwhelmed by work and the state of the world. 

So perhaps this notion of Yom Kippur as the happiest day is meant to be instructive: If we were supposed to be happy despite the calamity of Jewish history and despite fasting, perhaps we can succeed in finding peace and fulfillment during the rest of the year. 

Of course, happiness is much more than a smile or fleeting pleasures. According to scientists, deep happiness is based in a few core areas, including:

Building meaningful relationships
Practicing acts of kindness
Exercising and physical well-being (including sleep)
Entering states of flow
Pursuing spirituality and meaning
Using your strengths
Maintaining a positive mindset

We can’t achieve all of that on Yom Kippur. For today, we probably can  only surrender to joy, appreciating forgiveness and finding our truer, brighter selves. 

But it’s worth remembering that Yom Kippur provides us with a template for the rest of life: Even amid challenges and annoyances, we can find happiness. This revelation, if we take it into the rest of the year, can spark abundant joy.

Rabbi Aaron Lerner is the executive director of UCLA Hillel.