THE BLOG
09/30/2014 02:13 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Yom Kippur's Surprising Lessons About Joy

For most of my life, I thought of Yom Kippur as a time for fear and trembling, a time for deep, powerful, intense work, and of course fasting and other forms of self-affliction. But somewhere along the way, I got to see another face of the day -- one of dancing, singing and celebration as we ask for our lives to be rendered anew.

The Talmud tells us, "Atonement and joy go well together." The medieval Kabbalistic book the Zohar makes the same case, but even stronger: "Yom Ha-Kippurim, hu yom k'Purim." Yom Kippur is a day like Purim -- the silly, irreverent carnival dedicated to joy and playfulness. It's considered to be an ideal day for romantic matchmaking, and the rituals of Yom Kippur -- fasting, ritually confessing, wearing white -- are mirrored intentionally in the Jewish wedding ceremony.

None of this seems obvious, does it? But then again, joy isn't obvious.

When we're feeling most things, most times, there's an element of distraction to it. We're sad about now and afraid about the future, we're angry about something that just happened because it taps into a whole host of things that happened a long time ago. We are so often bound up into a whole, complex network of thoughts and ideas from the past and the future. We manage, sometimes, to be both in the moment and somewhere else, in another point along the spectrum of time -- torn, ever-so-slightly, in two or more pieces.

When we're feeling joy, on the other hand, there's only the moment of joy, and we take it in fully. We tend to experience more, and are newly attuned to the small, everyday flashes of beauty and grace that populate our lives. We suddenly notice the loveliness of the flowers on the side of the road, the crisp sweetness of an apple, the kindness paid to us by someone we encounter briefly. In joy, we feel more sensitized, more awake, more alive. And it's that sensitivity, that openness, that situating oneself entirely in the present moment that opens us also to the transcendent, the holy, to the sacred stream of life that flows through us, connects us, surrounds us.

And yet, as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov has said, "Finding true joy is the hardest of all spiritual tasks."

Joy is actually hard and threatening for many of us, difficult to tolerate. We know how to do hurt, resentful, afraid, angry -- those are familiar states, with a perverse sort of comfort to them. They may not be pleasant, but we know them, know how they work, know who we are with them. Joy is the unknown. We don't always feel like we know who we are in the unfettered openness of the present moment, what might give shape to our lives if not the recurring drama, the clinging to the past or the crafting of stories about some vague, hypothetical future. Being present in the moment means accepting what is -- not rewriting what happened, not desperately crafting what happens next. It's hard to be happy. It touches a place deeper and more primal than even all of the old feelings of self-annihilation, something much closer to the core of who we really are. And that's terrifying.

Feeling happy makes us vulnerable in a way that feeling terrible doesn't. Because there is, suddenly, something to lose. Various Jewish cultures around the world have tapped into that, externalizing and personifying our fears about the fact that joy is non-permanent. My mother would always tell me not to talk about how well things were going, because the dybbuks -- the demons -- were listening, and would surely throw a wrench in my plans, or that I'd give myself a kenahorah, entanglement with the evil eye. Or, if you do admit your happiness, you have to negate it--again, as protection against the evil eye: "Things are going really well, puh puh puh." It's almost comical, except for the ways in which it reveals the abject terror we all have to just sitting with the joy we have, to owning it. Maybe we feel like there'll have to be some price to pay later on for all the magic we're experiencing now. Maybe we just don't trust that this happiness is really here, is really real. Or maybe, as Marianne Williamson famously suggested, "Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."

Yom Kippur is the day when we taste a measure of our own power, our own light, our own expansive greatness. The day itself washes us clean. All the old hurts and angers can be, if we let them, released into the great beyond. The work asks us to go deep down into the core of our being and excavate everything that doesn't belong, to offer up our indiscretions, our pettiness, our smallness, our fear and our anger -- taking it out of our hearts, naming it, and telling it that it doesn't need to rule over us any more.

Part of how we get there is by letting the hard stuff in. Sometimes the present moment is painful, and we need to stay present until the pain ebbs away. We can let go of the hurt and anger and sadness by first giving ourselves space to feel them, fully -- trusting that they won't destroy us, that given enough room to have full reign, after a while all the hard feelings will eventually wander off somewhere else.

And part of how we get there is by letting go. We need to let go of old narratives of ourselves and our hurts and sadnesses, and we need to make space for the magic and the mystery of right now. And when joy comes, when you let it in, you have a choice. You can try to bind yourself to it, get yourself tangled up in, it so that when you meet someone new, you're already thinking and wondering if he or she will be someone you want to have around in your life on a permanent basis. You can decide that loving one class means that you must spend the rest of your life on that subject. You can become attached to the story turning out one particular way and inevitably be disappointed when it unfolds in a different direction. Or you can kiss the joy as it flies, as William Blake put it, and relish the moment of a wonderful conversation, a wonderful evening, a wonderful class--and wait with eager curiosity to see what might happen next. If your self is whole and not torn, it becomes impossible to do anything but let the moments flow through you, the joy flow through you. And Yom Kippur is meant to help you get there.

Rituals of purification are meant to lift us higher and higher into joy. Fasting is means for altering consciousness and helping us to access a state that's difficult when we are full and grounded. Abstaining from leather lowers our defenses as we take down protective armor. And most importantly, naming all the ways our lives have been dysfunctional, all the ways we've strayed from who we should be, open a door wide for new possibilities.

It is the day both of last chances and of ultimate opportunities. "Who shall live and who shall die...?", the liturgy asks. Today is the day we must live, and live better than we ever have. Today is the day we must seize our lives, take hold of them, to become wider and bigger and fuller than we've ever been. To radiate out, in all directions -- to not hide, to know that this is our moment for joy, this is our moment for becoming as powerful as we already are. So take the joy now, with both hands, greedily, and through it allow yourself to be made new, in this present moment, and to shine on with your great, gorgeous light.