“For the sin we committed before You by callously hardening the heart.”
This period of time often puts people in a somber mood. Reflecting on the self and the ways we need to change can easily slip into a depressive evaluation in which we always come up short, and when we do, the joy that is inherent in these holidays is lost, robbing us of the self-confidence we need to make the adjustments ahead.
One of the ways we capture the joy of this season is through music. Some of us regard the familiar tunes that have guided us in our prayers since childhood as a visit from old friends. The joy of singing in community and filling the sanctuary with haunting, ethereal tunes, some of which are over a thousand years old, carries us to a place of transcendence and loftiness. Even when the words dwell on judgment and consequences, the melodies lift us high above the content, inspiring us to live the lyrics and offering us the joyous possibility that anything can happen. We are united, strong, and beautiful. It is unadulterated spiritual happiness, and it is powerful.
One of the most joyous melodies of Yom Kippur is the song sung close to the end of the Musaf service praising the Kohen, high priest, who would enter the Holy of Holies and ask God to forgive us on Yom Kippur. If his sacrifice of expiation was not accepted, he died. If he left this holiest of chambers alive, the people rejoiced in ancient collective relief. They saw the Kohen’s face lit with the majesty of forgiveness, a face that has become a model of the joy each of us experiences as we near the end of the service. We, too, have been forgiven. This song is often belted out in traditional congregations, as if we were standing and waiting in the Temple for our leader’s appearance, and saw in our first glimpse of him the absolute happiness of a person exculpated from sin. The song focuses us on the serenity of this spiritual leader as he rejoined the people peacefully and unharmed. In the prayer, he is compared to a glitter of light, a rainbow in the clouds, a garment of splendor, a rose in a beautiful garden, a groom filled with grace, a bright star, an angel, a candle that shines in windows, the rising sun. As we raise our voices, we relive the moment of forgiveness with him. We are there. The moment is sweet and pure.
Since these songs are old friends, or new friends for some, it can be difficult when the person leading services picks an unfamiliar melody or one that you do not like. You feel betrayed since some of these prayers are only uttered once a year. You have to wait an entire year for another opportunity. As I have often said, “There is no anger like the anger at someone who does not sing your tunes.” Not singing my tunes is like stealing my joy, and I have, on occasion, had the chutzpah to ask friends who lead services to repeat a prayer with my tune in the synagogue’s coatroom since it just wouldn’t be the holiday without hearing it.
In a High Holiday sermon, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once observed that when he first arrived in Germany and heard Yom Kippur songs sung to joyful tunes, he was shocked; this was in stark contrast to his memory of services in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, he observed that both approaches are legitimate, since “there is also great joy on the day that our sins are forgiven.”1Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (New York: Ktav, 1999), 2:176. Also published in Yemei Zikaron (17:12): 240 (Yiddish). He experienced that joy in the act of fasting and reflected on how sad he would be if he were not able to fast. One of his great phobias was the fear that with age he might one day be forced to break the fast for medical reasons: “I do not fast because of any normative pressure. I simply find delight, joy, and happiness in fasting, praying, and cleansing myself.”2Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav, 2:177, from the Rav’s lecture “Rashi on Aseret Hadibrot” at the RCA Annual Convention (June 30, 1970). The chance to start again from the inside out is a relief, a portal into lasting future happiness.
Sin and joy live in strange relation to each other. In Deuteronomy, we are remonstrated for not serving God with joy. Our happiness is a gift of faith, and if religion only makes us heavy-hearted and solemn then we have wronged it. “Because you did not serve the Lord, your God, with joyfulness and with gladness of heart by reason of the abundance of all things, therefore shall you serve your enemy whom the Lord shall send against you” (28:47–48). Maimonides cited this verse in his Laws of Repentance (9:1) as a proof-text that if you serve God with love you will experience great blessing, but the reverse is also true. In the same biblical book, God presents a pattern that repeats itself throughout our long and tortured history. Sin will remove you from your homeland and be the cause of your exile. During exile, you will begin to understand the cost of distance from God and pine for closeness. You will contemplate the causal relationship of actions and their consequences and pray to God and repent. God will then gather Israel “from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world” (30:3–4). The process of repentance on a national scale will make us stronger, and, as result, “He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers” (30:5). The backsliding can be remedied. There is always a path out of sin, individual and collective, and that path back will yield more than one could have ever anticipated. It will bring happiness.
But the joy at the end of the long road home can be achieved, according to this text, only if there is recognition of sin, a self-awareness that we often create the worst of possible worlds for ourselves. In the prescription for a future of greater joy, God recommends an odd “medical” procedure, an opening of the heart; the term used in the verse literally means that God will circumcise our hearts. God will create a small hole, a puncture in the thickness of our stubborn, often callous hearts, so that we can experience true happiness and live: “Then the Lord your God will open up [mal] your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live” (30:6). That small hole will release the blockage that gets in the way of authentic love and compassion. It is a spiritual stent, so to speak, that allows the heart to do its most important work.
Robert Goolrick, in his painful memoir, The End of the World as We Know It, writes about how much sorrow the human heart holds: “There is so much that happens to the human heart that is in the realm of the unthinkable, the unknowable, the unbearable.”3Robert Goolrick, The End of the World as We Know It (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008), 95. We harden the heart so that nothing can get in, and for that we confess multiple times: “For the sin we committed before You by callously hardening the heart.” We make no hole for the release of unbearable pain. We hold it in, and it begins to warp our capacity for grace.
“The virtue of a sacred heart lies in the courage to maintain your innocence and wonder, your doubt and curiosity, and your compassion and love even through your darkest, most difficult moments.”4Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 227. This description of a sacred heart, a heart open to vulnerability and kindness, comes from an unexpected corner: a leadership book published by the Harvard Business School Press. In it, the authors observe that many leaders who develop thick skin to motivate and manage others harden themselves from the best of human nature and the transcendent and inspiring aspects of their work. But the message resonates far beyond the realms of leadership to that of everyday human experience. How can we keep the hole in our hearts open so that we can face life’s vicissitudes and be appropriately touched by them without developing the callous outer layer that covers us and makes us numb to the range of human experience?
A sacred heart means you may feel tortured and betrayed, powerless and hopeless, and yet you stay open. It’s the capacity to encompass the entire range of your human experience without hardening or closing yourself. It means that even in the midst of disappointment and defeat, you remain connected to people and to the sources of your most profound purposes.5Ibid., 230.
Circumcision is not a word we usually associate with joy, and yet the idea of intentionally making oneself more vulnerable by removing an outer layer of protection is a lesson in how to live, in how to feel deeply. Our hearts need that hole. It must be wide enough to admit passion and compassion and anguish but small enough to filter the emotions that paralyze us, and prevent us from transformation and caring. This need and struggle is beautifully described in Rabbi Alan Lew’s book about this season, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared:
Every soul needs to express itself. Every heart needs to crack itself open. Every one of us needs to move from anger to healing, from denial to consciousness, from boredom to renewal. These needs did not arise yesterday. They are among the most ancient of yearnings, and they are fully expressed in the pageantry and ritual of the Days of Awe, in the great journey we make between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.6Alan Lew, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 2003), 9.
Our ancient yearnings, our sincere desire to be forgiven, is so much more profound as an expression of joy than the petty happinesses society offers today as a meager excuse for joy: retail therapy, comfort food, medication, money, status, gossip.
Joy lies in sound judgment and goodness. In Happiness in Premodern Judaism, Hava Tirosh-Samuelson takes her readers through the Jewish classics, offering virtue as a Jewish synonym for joy and sprinkling that virtue with a good dose of wisdom. She takes us through a catalogue of psalms, noting that the very first psalm begins with the word “happy.” Happiness is defined as virtue and wisdom from the outset: “Happy is the man who has not followed the counsel of the wicked or taken the path of sinners or joined the company of the insolent; rather the teaching of the Lord is his delight” (Psalms 1:1). The happy person keeps good company and delights in study. Excellence of character, she believes, is “a healthy departure from the relentless pursuit of material goods, wealth, power, and celebrity that characterizes much of our childish culture.”7Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Happiness in Premodern Judaism (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2003), 449. While virtue does not dispel pain or resolve every moral dilemma, it creates a noble and aspirational stretch and challenge for us. Imagine a society and culture that promotes excellence of character as the key to happiness. Judaism always has.
The positive psychologist and scholar Tal Ben-Shahar, in his book Happier, presents happiness through a range of personality types.8Tal Ben-Shahar, Happier (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007). The nihilist believes neither in immediate happiness nor in long-term joy because all is ultimately vanity. The hedonist enjoys happiness now, knowing but usually ignoring the long-term consequences of his or her behavior. He may overeat, indulge in harmful sexual behavior, binge drink. Sometimes his short-lived impulses bring about almost tragic sadness. He drinks himself silly, disregarding the hangover that will, no doubt, appear the next day. Under the influence, he believes himself to be the captain of the universe, gets into a car, and hits and kills a pedestrian. His short-lived happiness brings untold despair to others.
We get a brief glimpse into such a moment in the Bible, when a wealthy man from the Carmel named Nabal slips up. David was not yet king. Protecting the area where Nabal lived, David sent some of his soldiers to get food from Nabal’s estate. Nabal laughed off the request: “Who is David?” (I Samuel 25:10). He spurned the request to give anything to these hungry soldiers, keeping it all for himself. When the soldiers passed on Nabal’s message, David was incensed and ready to take up arms. Abigail, Nabal’s wife, heard of the interaction and was mortified by her husband’s behavior. She amassed food to feed them all and then personally traveled to greet David, before he arrived at her estate, and apologized for her husband with a clever play on words. A naval in Hebrew is a boor or a crass individual. “Please, my lord, pay no attention to that wretched fellow. For he is just what his name says. His name means ‘boor’ and he is a boor” (25:25). We admire her creativity but feel pity for this marriage.
When Abigail returns home, Nabal was enjoying a feast, hedonist that he was. The text points out the irony of his self-absorption, recording that he “made a feast fit for a king” but did not invite the future king who would one day reign over all of Israel. “Now Nabal was in a merry mood and very drunk,” and Abigail was not able to tell him all that had transpired with David and how angry David was. “The next morning, when Nabal had slept off the wine, his wife told him everything that had happened; and his courage died within him, and he became like a stone” (25:37). David did not kill him. Nabal died a few days later from an unknown cause. His greed literally ate him to death.
Happier also presents the person most unlike the hedonist: she is on life’s treadmill, finding herself in a rat-race for existence. She forfeits happiness now for future happiness, often securing neither. She hates her job but stays in it for the money and the dream of one day retiring to enjoy it all, not realizing that the “sunk happiness cost” – to adapt a concept from economics – may never pay off if the economy collapses or she becomes too unwell with age to enjoy all her past labors. People who forgo happiness today for a future happiness they can only imagine or aspire to are denying themselves the beauty of today without a guarantee for tomorrow.
Ben-Shahar proposes that the genuinely happy person does not live the life of the nihilist, the hedonist, or the ambitious person on the treadmill of monotony. A happy person for this positive psychologist is one who acts in a way that will make him feel good today and good tomorrow.
Maimonides, who occupies two chapters of Tirosh-Samuelson’s Happiness in Premodern Judaism, promoted a return to virtue through repentance. In The Guide of the Perplexed, he reflects on the process of the heart cracking itself open and the seminal value of teshuva through an unusual word analysis. Maimonides comments more than once in his oeuvre on a very specific Hebrew word for randomness that appears seven times in the same chapter of Leviticus: “keri,” or chance. In Leviticus 26, a chapter on causality and the obligations of a covenantal relationship, God points to all the blessings that will accrue if we follow God’s law, but then turns to the dangers of willful ignorance or outright hostility. Many translations take the word keri as a form of hostility or rejection. Maimonides prefers the notion of randomness or chance: you do not believe that events happen through divine providence but understand any tragedy as mere chance and, therefore, you neither learn to improve yourself nor seek meaning when bad things befall you. Without introspection, you will persist in this behavior, bringing only further distress upon yourself.
Maimonides identifies an additional problem with this thinking. The capacity for transformation always works in two directions. We slip up. We rebuild. We fall down. We pick ourselves up. Without meditating on wrongdoing or believing that repentance is possible, we allow our lives to move in only one direction: the spiral of descent.
If then the individual believed that this fracture can never be remedied, he would persist in his error and sometimes perhaps disobey even more because of the fact that no stratagem remains at his disposal. If, however, he believes in repentance, he can correct himself and return to a better and more perfect state than the one he was in before he sinned.9Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed III:37, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 2:540.
If there were no way back, then people would persist and even deepen their commitment to wrongdoing. Teshuva must exist in concept and in act to offer a road out of sin even before an act of sin is committed. The capacity to recalibrate and progress stands in relation to the gravitational pull downwards.
What happens to people who do not believe that repentance is a possibility? They shorten their joy. They cut themselves off from the liberation of the soul. As an illustration, we turn to the first penitent in the Bible: Cain. Cain killed his brother, committing the first murder between the very first brothers, not exactly a propitious beginning for the family dynamic moving forward. Only if we read Cain as an innocent who did not know the full freight of his anger or what the death of his brother really meant can we begin to understand how much Cain was tortured by his sin. Cain did not protest to God that his punishment was too great to bear, as many mistranslations render Genesis 4:13. The word “avon” is familiar in our prayers this season; it means sin, and once Cain understood that his brother would not return, he understood that he had to return. He had to rebuild his relationship with God and himself. He told God: “My sin is too great to bear.” I cannot live with myself.
Sin strips us of joy. It traps and paralyzes us. It makes us restless and anxious. When sin is too great to bear, life stands in the balance.
God explained the primal surge of anger and our ability to overcome it before Cain killed Abel, but Cain did not understand it. “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right sin crouches at the door; its urge is towards you yet you can be its master” (4:6–7). Goodness lifts us up. Sin drags us down. Temptation appears every time we open the door, like a crouching animal ready to pounce. But we have mastery over the door. We can close it.
Cain did not heed these words. He opened the door to sin widely, and it pounced on him, egging him on, besetting him with its ferocity. The Italian Renaissance artist, Titian, rendered the murder as the tangle of muscular sinews; both brothers are locked in the tussle, but perhaps it was God’s words that Cain ultimately wrestled with but could not conquer. The urge to do wrong is muscular and strong, virtually unyielding and persistent. But it can be defeated.
After the murder, when Cain reflected on the burden of his wrongdoing, he understood that in a world where primal urges reign, others could do to him what he did to his brother. He was terrified at the thought that he, too, could be murdered just as he had murdered. God gave him a mark of protection, and then Cain left the presence of God and married and had a child and built a city. Cursed with being a wanderer, Cain’s repentance allowed him the stability to build a new life, to find joy.
Rabbi Mordechai of Lekhovitz (d. 1811), commenting on the verse about Cain’s mark: “And the Lord set a sign for Cain lest anyone who meet him should kill him” (Genesis 4:15), observed that this odd sign upon Cain’s forehead would be noticeable to all who saw him. That was precisely the point. His mark was a sign of preservation. The rebbe, however, did not regard it as a sign for others – but rather for Cain himself: “God gave Cain, the penitent, a sign of strength and holiness, so that no accident he met with should beat his spirit down and disturb him in his work of repentance.”10Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1977), 155.
One midrash captures this happiness and the sadness of those for whom teshuva is elusive and hidden:11For more on this midrash and the topic, see Erica Brown, “Is Repentance Possible?” in Confronting Scandal (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2010), 107–128.
Adam met Cain and asked, “What was done in punishment of you?” Cain replied, “I vowed repentance and was granted forgiveness.” Upon hearing this, Adam in self-reproach began to beat his face as he said, “Such is the power of repentance, and I knew it not.” Then and there Adam exclaimed, “It is a good thing to confess to the Lord.”12Genesis Rabba 22:12.
Adam sinned and disobeyed God but since he never offered up his grief, he had no idea that teshuva was possible. He went down but could not go up. Repentance was not yet in the limited lexicon of human experience. It seems that repentance had to be discovered. It was neither instinctive nor assumed.
Rabbi Hanina ben Isaac, author of this midrash, added another dimension by excerpting a verse from elsewhere. What was Cain feeling when he left the presence of the Lord with this mark of protection? “He went forth rejoicing.”
Forgiveness makes us happy. Goodness gives us life. Returning to moral clarity makes us whole again. Virtue lifts us up. Repentance brings us joy.
Think of three occasions this past year that were particularly joyful for you and why. If you are able to, write them down and contemplate why they made you happy. Did your joy have to do with material gain or the heightening of status or did it have to do with relationships, virtue, and goodness? Atomizing the ingredients of our personal happiness helps us recreate it in other situations. Too often we spend our emotional energies perseverating on what we did wrong and all of the consequences of wrongdoing. Sometimes we do this ourselves. At other times, people criticize us and analyze our faults. Today, spend some time analyzing your strengths and the sources of your happiness. How can you enhance your JQ – your joy quotient – in this coming year? Meaningful change happens from a place of confidence.
Passages for Additional Study
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Repentance 8:6
There is no way in this world to grasp and comprehend the ultimate good which the soul will experience in the world to come. We only know bodily good and that is what we desire. However, that [ultimate] good is overwhelmingly great and cannot be compared to the good of this world except in a metaphoric sense. In truth, there is no way to compare the good of the soul in the world to come to the bodily goods of this world. Rather, that good is infinitely great, with no comparison or likeness. This is alluded to by David’s statement [Psalms 31:20]: “How great is the good that You have hidden for those who fear You.”
Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto, The Path of the Just, Chapter 7: “Concerning the Divisions of Zeal”
It is to be observed that all of the deeds of the righteous are performed with alacrity. In relation to Abraham it is written, “And Abraham hastened to the tent, to Sarah, and he said, ‘Hasten…’ and he gave it to the youth and he hastened” (Genesis 18:6). And in relation to Rebecca, “And she hastened and spilled her pitcher…” (Genesis 24:20). And in the midrash, “And the woman made haste…” (Bamdibar Rabba 10:17, Judges 13:10) – this teaches us that all the deeds of the righteous are done quickly, that they do not permit time to elapse before beginning them or completing them.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Repentance 16:8
Full penitence registers two seemingly contradictory effects on the soul: on the one hand anxiety and grief over the sins and the evil in oneself, and on the other hand confidence and satisfaction over the good, since it is impossible for the person not to discover some element of good in himself. Even if at times his assessment is confused and he cannot find anything good in himself, the very realization that sin and evil have produced in him anxiety and distress is itself of great merit. He should be happy, confident and full of vitality because of the measure of good. Thus even while seriously troubled by the emotion of penitence, he should be full of vitality, girded with the zeal for achievement and the joy of life and the readiness to experience its blessing.
Text questions to think about while studying:
• What is the source of ultimate joy in the texts above?
• How does speed in the performance of goodness demonstrate joy?
• Why does teshuva make the penitent happy and sad at the same time?