When I was a child, I remember asking my father what his favorite holiday was, to which he replied, without blinking an eye: Yom Kippur. I thought he was just being his usual contrarian self, but later found that indeed, the Talmud agrees with him, stating that Yom Kippur was one of the two happiest days of the year for the people of Israel1. Why should a day we traditionally experience as being somber be considered the happiest day of the year? It would appear that there are two reasons. The first being that in antiquity, at this time of the day, just after musaf on Yom Kippur, there was a big dance event, all the single women would dress in white and dance in the fields for the single men who would choose among them and subsequently marry. Unfortunately, this is no longer a part of our Yom Kippur experience, but perhaps the Book of Jonah might point to our other source of joy on this day.
It is an odd little book. Most of us know the part about a whale, but in short, the story relates how Gd appears to the prophet Jonah ben Amitai and tells him he needs to go abroad to save a city from destruction. Prophesizing to the surrounding nations is not unusual for the classical prophets, they are all recorded as doing it, but this time, rather than raining doom upon enemies, Jonah is told to go save the most wicked and nasty of Israel’s enemies, the people of Ninveh. Jonah knows just how bad these people will ultimately become, because he is described in the book of Kings II as prophesizing how they will conquer Israel and destroy the Temple, imagine a nationalist prophet having to go save someone like Ahmadinejad. So his response is to board a boat and go in exactly the opposite direction. This part of the story we all know; there’s a storm and ultimately Jonah is thrown overboard. Incidentally, this text may be the first and last description of polite sailors… At any rate, Gd “rubs it in” by having Jonah saved via a big fish, the fish being the symbol of Ninveh (“nun” in Aramaic means “fish”). So after being spit out, Jonah obediently makes his way to Ninveh, delivers his message of “repent or die” and to his dismay, the people of Ninveh, all the way up to the king, indeed repent and are saved. Jonah sulks outside of the city, where he finds some shade under a “kikayon” bush. Gd, completing his message to us, sends a worm which sucks the life out of the bush, and Jonah throws a fit. Gd says to him, so you are upset over the loss of this bush that helped you out this one time? Jonah answers, yes, I’m REALLY upset, to which Gd replies, this one time favor, the way this bush helped you out NOW is what is crucial to your feelings about it? Well, RIGHT NOW this city has repented. What happened in the past has been atoned, and what will come in the future is still subject to change, but RIGHT NOW I will not destroy them because of your political grievances.
And this , I submit, is the cause of the joy of Yom Kippur. We can look at our lives, see the mistakes we’ve made, and say, I can’t change the past, and who knows what the future will hold, but I can say that RIGHT NOW, just before our beautiful Neila service2, that I want to be a better person, that I want to change my life, and RIGHT NOW that’s really all one needs to turn one’s life around. There really is no greater happiness than that.
1Tu B’Av being the other, see our essay on Perashat Ekev for a “feminist” reading of this link to Tu B’Av.
2Rabbi Felipe Goodman of Temple Beth Shalom has created a unique custom for his congregation of filing before the open ark during the neila service that is quite striking and should be more well known.