Yom Kippur 2020: Struggling for Happiness

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov tells us: Be happy always. In a year of struggle and sorrow, how do we use Yom Kippur to achieve this perspective?

The Talmud teaches that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: 

There were no days as happy for the Jewish people as Yom Kippur, for it has the elements of pardon and forgiveness, and is the day on which the last pair of tablets were given. 

We, today, may not tend to think of Yom Kippur as a day of joy, but after a year like 5780, I think that maybe we should. As we stand in the middle of what promises to be a time of ongoing challenge worldwide, finding happiness in Yom Kippur might be the most useful way to use our day. And, as with anything in the Jewish tradition, we’re in good company - we’re not the first to attempt it.

“It is a great mitzvah to always be happy.” These are the words of Rabbi Nachman ben Feiga, the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who founded the mystical Hasidic stream of Judaism. “It is a great mitzvah to always be happy.” It sounds like an absurdity, particularly in times like ours. Who is this Nachman, to tell us to be happy when it appears that our world is returning to tohu va’vohu, the chaos and tumult that existed prior to the creation of our world?

Rebbe Nachman died at the age of 38, only a little older than me. Before he died, he watched his children die of disease, his wife die of disease, his home and treasured rabbinic library burned to ashes, and then he, himself, caught tuberculosis, which eventually took his life. And it was this difficult, painful life that led him to say: “It is a great mitzvah to always be happy.”

In his life of great suffering, he still held to his dictum. Which led me to wonder: How does one find happiness all the time? Being a rabbi, I turned to the Jewish textual tradition, and the first answer that jumped out at me was a good one. Psalm 100 reads: Ivdu et adonai b’simcha, bo lifanav birnana - Serve God in happiness, come before the Eternal One in joy.

This line can be read as saying TO serve God bring happiness -So, having said that, serving God is a big question. Maybe the biggest. What does it mean for me to serve God? Or for you? For Jews to serve God is to wrestle with God. Our name, the people Israel, literally means the ones who wrestle with God.  It is rooted in the story of our ancestor Jacob.As he spent a restless night along the river Yabbok, nervous about meeting his estranged brother for the first time in decades, he was visited by a non-human entity. The two wrestled throughout the dark night. After sustaining an injury to his hip, Jacob pinned this non-human entity and demanded it tell him its name. The entity refused, but instead blessed Jacob with a new name, saying: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but instead Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and won out.”

Now, I always try to recognize the discomfort that the word “God” brings to some people. So I’d like to take this moment to define for you what I mean when I say God. God, to me, is the underlying structural energy behind all we see and experience. We can engage with God through God’s attributes - the world around us, the world within us, each other. All allow us to connect with the Divine presence beneath through a specific attribute of that underlying Divine Presence. This Divine Presence is what I mean when I refer to God. 

What the mythological etymology of our ancestral namesake Israel teaches us is that our service is to struggle with this Divine Presence. Jacob wrestling the entity at the river Yabbok represents each of us in our world and lives, as well as our entire people in the world. Our history and literature are full of these struggles. Surrounded by darkness, grasping and clinging, pushing towards our desired outcome in spite of what seem like hopeless odds, and eventually blossoming forth, flourishing. This unending struggle is our way to serve God.

Rebbe Nachman, the same Nachman of “It is a mitzvah to be happy always.” tells us: “God grants permission for obstacles to be arranged before people. But God hides, as it were, within the obstacles. And one who is wise will be able to find God within the obstacles themselves. For the truth is that there are no obstacles whatsoever in the world. In the very force of the obstacles themselves, God is hidden. Thus, specifically through the obstacles themselves one is able to draw closer to the Holy One, for God is hidden there.”

It’s often hard to find God in the struggle. But that is what Yom Kippur is all about. Even in our darkest moments, when we ourselves know we have done wrong, have missed the mark, or have not lived up to our own standards, Yom Kippur comes to remind us that there is hope - repair is possible. This is why the Talmud says that it is a joyful day - but we must do the work. 

When we engage tomorrow with U’netaneh Tokef, the prayer which recounts the ways in which our lives are judged and our rewards and punishments are doled out, we are reminded that even in the darkness God is there. That those moments we see and feel as completely devoid of hope or promise are also attributes of God, are also ways to serve the underlying Divine Presence. 

Serving God is finding God in all that we do, and especially in the most difficult obstacles we confront. Rather than seeing those obstacles as punishments,  we may seek to find God through the obstacles. This is how we serve God.Today, when so many obstacles are presenting themselves before us, we have a lot of serving to do. Just THINKING about what it will take to confront these obstacles can be overwhelming. As overwhelming as trying to understand the oneness of God, or what it would mean to serve God. It all stands before us, a towering mountain of obstacles piled on obstacles. And within each piece is God, to serve by disclosing, discovering, revealing to ourselves and the world, God’s presence through the work itself.

The sugya of Talmud I quoted at the beginning of this sermon cites the giving of the second tablets at Sinai as a reason for the day’s great joy. These second tablets were, themselves, a process of Moses serving God precisely in this way. After letting his greatest weakness, his anger, take hold of him, Moses smashed the first set of Tablets which had been hand written by God. The second set he had to carve himself. He, like his and our ancestor Jacob, had to wrestle not only with God to accomplish his life’s work, but with himself - and, in wrestling with God, he refined himself through this work.

Just like Jacob wrestling, and Moses carving, we too must wrestle these obstacles to earn our name. We can not retreat, waiting for others to do this work. The work is ours, and the work, when we do it, will make us happy always. But there is another secret to this mitzvah of happiness. Rebbe Nachman tells us that what we perceive as lowliness or difficulty now, will lead to our enlightenment, and in the future, laughter at our negative estimation. That perceived lowliness or difficulty itself is the road to enlightenment, and all we need to do now to be happy is to know that later, we will laugh.

Laughing may be a tall order given the harrowing nature of many of our struggles today. But we can be heartened by our past perspectives as we struggle to always be happy. How many times have you confronted what you thought was an unspeakably dire obstacle which, upon reflection now, was not so dire at all? Moreover, as you reflect back, can you see that your dire estimation only functioned to make your struggle harder? And, in retrospect, the struggle wasn’t so difficult at all? This type of reflection is precisely what Rabbi Nachman is suggesting we useto lighten our burdens in the moment.

We have found that on this Yom Kippur 5781, in a world filled with troubles, and obstacles, that we have a mitzvah to fulfill. Be happy always. And to fulfill this mitzvah, we must work to serve God by wrestling with and finding God within each and every obstacle we confront. While these obstacles may seem difficult, even depressing now, we also know that in the future we will look back and perhaps be able to laugh, having gained only greater enlightenment and perspective due to these obstacles. And this is all service to God.

I charge you with a service to God tonight. For the next 24 hours, look at the obstacles inside yourself. What are the things which have felt immovable, unchangeable, that you know deep inside are rooted in fear, rooted in a place that leads to your turning away from the obstacle again and again. Instead of turning away from it this time, turn towards it, and try to make yourself smile - even laugh! Bring happiness to your heart knowing that to overturn this obstacle is to be with God. And you’ve overturned many obstacles before.

Then: look around. What other obstacles are there?

We are entrusted with the knowledge of our ancestors that teaches us how to be our best selves in this world, which is what it means to serve God. Unless we heed our ancestors, unless we serve God by confronting the obstacles, our happiness is forfeit. This Yom Kippur, let us uncover the obstacles within us in order to confront them, so that on the other side, we will confront the obstacles in the world around us. It is a great challenge that is laid before us. Our world is in desperate need of healing. But with happiness in our hearts, and laughter in our mouths, we can work together to reveal God in all of the obstacles we confront. 

May you be sealed in the book of life for good in this year of 5781, and may each obstacle you confront bring you happiness, and closer to God.