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To Be Seriously Happy

11/03/2016 10:11:37 PM


Dear Rabbi,

For the High Holy Days this year I joined your congregation for the first time. I really enjoyed the services, yet something struck me as peculiar. In every congregation I have ever attended, Kol Nidrei evening was always a solemn and somber affair. The atmosphere was hushed, tense and reflective. But at BDHLS the services evoked jubilance and festivity. The cantor sang upbeat songs; you addressed the congregation with humor and cheeriness; and the congregation was invited to participate with joy and laughter.

Please help me understand this unique experience of mine. Thanking you for your wisdom and guidance,

Signed - Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your email. I’m very happy you joined us for the Holy Days, and glad that you enjoyed yourself. Your question is an excellent one, and it touches on some deep and profound matters of faith and religion.

Whilst I cannot speak for other congregations, I can certainly speak for ours.

The realms of spirituality and religion are very confusing for many. They are esoteric by nature, and to fully understand and master them takes lots of study and effort. Thus, it is fairly typical for people to become befuddled in their search for the correct and appropriate attitudes and reactions to matters of faith. Following are a few common misconceptions:

  1. Happy’ and ‘serious’ are not two opposite emotions. The opposite of happy is depressed, and the opposite of serious is frivolous. Hence, it is possible for a person to be both happy and serious at the same time.

Too often, a frivolous person mistakenly suspects a serious person of being depressed, and a depressed person mistakenly suspects a happy person of being frivolous.

A bride and groom on their wedding day are typically both serious and happy. They are serious when they appreciate the vast magnitude of their decision to tie the knot; and they are happy for having the opportunity to make such a decision.

  1. G-d created the world out of love, not fear. The Divine emotion of love was what caused G-d to create a world, in which He could create ‘others’ to whom He could express His love.

Thus, one of G-d’s commandments to us is to love Him, for it is only fair that we reciprocate the love that we receive from Him.

There is also another commandment called ‘Yirat Hashem’.  This term has been wrongly translated as ‘Fear of G-d’. Fear is an emotion towards something that can harm us. But G-d doesn’t look to harm us, and He doesn’t want to rule out of fear.

‘Yirat Hashem’ means to respect and be awed by G-d. We love those who are alike us, and respect those who are superior to us. Love brings two people closer together; respect creates a distance between them. A healthy relationship needs to consist of both love and respect. When we love, we give of ourselves to the other. When we respect, we give to the other their own space and freedom. Respecting G-d as our superior moves us to obey His commands and be humbled by his awesome supremacy.

  1. G-d is not a tyrant. He doesn’t look to squash those who rebel against Him. He isn’t paranoid, or a control-freak, or power-hungry. He doesn’t lack self-esteem, and didn’t have a troubled childhood or abusive parent. G-d is complete and perfect. And when He created us, He gave us a manual to live by so that we can live healthily and purposefully. When we sin, we don’t hurt G-d, nor does He get ruffled or angry by our behavior. When we sin we hurt ourselves: 1) by having made choices that are unhealthy for our life’s mission, 2) by having betrayed the love through which G-d gave us life.

So what has all this got to do with Kol Nidrei night?

On Yom Kippur we are given the opportunity to reflect on our past year’s behavior, regret the sins we committed, and resolve to be a better person for the coming year. Essentially, we are engaging in an intimate conversation with Hashem, one that is filled with many kinds of emotions and feelings. Here’s how the conversation is meant to unfold:

  1. In order to own up to our wrongdoings, we need to feel safe, protected and loved. So first we must be grateful to G-d for the safety, protection and love we find amid His presence.

  2. Then, as we stand before the Supernal Judge, we should feel honored knowing that G-d in fact cares about us and our decisions. Seriously, how many other people in your life care that much about you?

  3. Next, we make a serious evaluation of who we are and what we can be. It is against this backdrop that we will discover our mistakes, and be able to genuinely regret our wrongdoing. Confronting our failures is a brutally serious and honest experience.

  4. Then we do Teshuvah, which means that we ask G-d for forgiveness. Let’s be honest, there are not many people in our lives that will forgive us if we have wronged them. But G-d does forgive. And He doesn’t just push the sin aside, but He actually cleans away the stain, and absolves its strain on our relationship with Him. When we are sincere, G-d lifts us up to a place where the sin no longer exists so we can truly begin anew.

  5. Finally, we feel exuberant that we are given this opportunity, and feel hopeful that there is someone in our lives – G-d – who knows us better than we know ourselves, and believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. There is nothing that can make us happier than knowing that we have the genuine chance to move on from our past towards a bright new future!

So, anytime you walk into a Synagogue, especially on Yom Kippur, you should never be sad, anxious, depressed, angry or despondent. Rather, you should be grateful, honored, serious, honest, hopeful and happy.

At BDHLS, we endeavor to create an atmosphere which will help you experience the gamut of healthy and necessary emotions for a genuine and meaningful relationship with Hashem. 

Signing off with love - Rabbi Eliezer Wolf

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