By Shlomo Riskin
“Now, therefore write this song for you, and teach it to the People of Israel…” (Deut. 31:19)
Is Yom Kippur a happy day or a sad day? Many associate the Day of Atonement with solemnity and trepidation. Indeed, according to most translations, the Torah specifically states regarding this holiest of days, “you shall afflict your souls” (Lev. 16:29).
The great Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, however, suggests a radically different understanding of this day. “On Tisha B’Av, I can’t eat because I’m so sad,” he said. “On Yom Kippur I have no need to eat, because I’m so happy.”
But what of the command to afflict oneself? What is the basis for his happiness?
In truth, his interpretation reflects a deep insight about the essence of the day, based on the fact that the Hebrew letters that form the root, “affliction” – the Hebrew letters ayin-nun-yud), are also the letters that form the root for expressions of joyous song.
For example, the Torah states (Deut. 26:5) regarding the declaration of the farmer, who, filled with feelings of happiness, brings the first fruits (known as bikkurim) to the Temple: (“V’anita v’amarta”), “you shall happily sing and declare…”, with the proper musical cantillations.
Similarly, at the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the Torah (Ex. 15:21) reports, “And Miriam (happily) sang to them” (“V’ta’an la’hem Miriam”).
This gives us a fresh perspective on the aforementioned verse in Leviticus, which as we noted above, is usually translated as “you shall afflict yourselves.” However, re-reading the Hebrew original – “t’anu et nafshoteichem” – in light of the above, we can accurately understand it as “you shall make your souls sing”. Indeed, the next verse explains why we should be happy: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to purify you; from all your sins shall you be purified before God.”
We can now gain an appreciation of the verse in our portion that refers to the Torah as a song. In what way is the Torah a song? Because like a song, the Torah can bring us great happiness via the commandments, which allow us to ennoble and sanctify ourselves. In the same way that we enjoy a great high when we accomplish a difficult task and perform it well, so, too, does the song of the Torah allow us to rejoice in the potential of human nature and the ability of the human being to achieve a life of morality and holiness.
It is for this reason that the Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – is fundamentally a day of happiness. One might have thought that with all the fasting and the many hours spent in the synagogue, we should relate to the day in purely solemn terms. But Yom Kippur is not a fast of sadness. Rather, it is when we re-discover our great spiritual capacity to be like the angels who never need food or drink, soaring close to God, and transcending the physical. It is then that we understand the meaning of true rejoicing: spending 25 hours in fellowship with the Divine, without need of physical comforts. This experience opens the window to the spiritual rejoicing that gives us such great comfort and well-being.
Indeed, the custom in yeshivot is to ecstatically sing and dance with renewed vigor and dedication after the last Shofar blasts are sounded at the end of the Ne’ila prayer, at the conclusion of the fast. The excited students and teachers declare with their enthusiasm: ‘Behold, we have transcended our physical selves. We have climbed upwards into the Divine embrace. We feel Your gracious compassion, and we are ready and hopefully worthy to attempt to perfect ourselves and the world.’
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.