Gut Yontif! I always wondered, why do we say “Gut Yontif” (lit. good holiday) on Yom Kippur. Isn’t supposed to be a sad day? Yontif is yiddush for Yom Tov or Good Day – So when we say GOOD Yontif we are actually saying “May you have a good “Good Day!” But why? What “good” is a holiday without wine and challah? without kugel? No chocolate babka? No coffee? Not even a nice glass of tea??? This day is like the great anomaly in our heritage. A Jewish festival without a nosh? It wasn’t until I spent my first Yom Kippur in Israel that I understood why some consider this to be “the most wonderful time of the year!”
So let me take you 6,000 miles East of here for a moment. Earlier today in Israel, radio and TV stations were broadcasting operatic renditions of the well-known Yom Kippur prayers. Even the digital display on the public buses have new years greetings
Almost every radio and TV channel features a physician prescribing pre-fast measures to stave off headaches and ensure an easy fast rabbis can be heard over the airways emphasizing that Yom Kippur is meant to be the most joyous holiday of the year, because we get a new lease on life and a special opportunity to heal our relationships with others and with God. By 2:30 PM the airports and all public transportation grind to a halt. And eventually only emergency vehicles are allowed on the roads. Young men are walking back from the mikvah- the ritual bath with wet towels slung over their shoulders. Eighteen minutes before sundown sirens blare through Jerusalem’s streets like a great shofar reminding people that it’s time to light candles. But at that point most people are already in shul for the pre-Yom Kippur Kol Nidre prayer.
It is so quiet, no planes, cars, or trains – just the sounds of prayer, And the joyful sounds of children who have been waiting all year to rule the empty streets on what is Yom Ofanaim – Israel’s Bicycle Day. After the last strains of the early evening services fade, congregations spill out onto blissfully wide empty streets young and old march together dressed in flowing white. There is so much laughter and joy in the air as old friends and neighbors bump into each other in the middle of the street and stop to bless each other to be sealed for a good year. The next day of course everyone looks hungry and thirsty but there is a sense of joy and holiness that increases throughout the morning and afternoon. When the sunset arrives and the gates of prayer are closing. Israeli congregations complete the festival with ecstatic singing and dancing.
Why such joy without challah or babka? Because when we are stripped down to our very essence we find that there is joy in simply being alive, being present with your community and being in the presence of God. But the work we have to do to get to that place of joy, can be filled with anticipation, anxiety, awe, and expectation, a feeling as if we are being turned inside out or even upside down. Some of us get especially sad this time of year as we remember loved ones who are not here to celebrate with us. Fear may also be present, as we face our future, the great unknown. Anger and frustration may also make their way to the forefront, as we reflect on our mistakes or the great injustices of the past year, Great injustices like the fact that I haven’t been to the movie theater in years!
Actually I must confess that is not true, to bring a little joy into my sermon writing I recently went out for a rare treat, a 9:45pm late showing of the movie Inside Out. I got a family-size popcorn without having to share it with anyone,
and had the theatre all to myself. Before I go any further, I want to let you inside of my head for just a moment. You don’t want to be there any longer than that, I’m a rabbi after all. Whenever I see movies, they always end up being filtered through a Jewish lens.
It’s just hard to turn off when Torah is embedded in the very fabric of my universe.
Admittedly, sometimes this can ruin a movie experience, because I just want to sit back and enjoy a night “off.” But, sometimes it can enhance a movie. That’s part of what I love about being a rabbi. People tell me their stories and I help them find meaning in them. As your rabbi I am here to walk with you along your Jewish path, wherever you’ve been, wherever you are now, and to whatever destination you set your spiritual GPS, your JEW.P.S.
By the way, how many of you have actually been to a movie theatre alone? Okay, I guess it’s not that strange. So there I was by myself doing some serious rabbinic research. No seriously, movies can put us inside the world, culture, and perspective of someone completely outside our own experience. And the best movies do that in a way that helps us understand something about ourselves. “Inside Out” takes us inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. She has her own adventure but the real story takes place in her mind and it is her emotions who take center stage. They operate the helm of Head-quarters. The emotions even look like what they are. Joy is a yellow smiley-face emoji fairy with no shoes. Sadness is a blue teardrop with glasses and a turtleneck, and is kind of a bummer to be around. Fear is a skinny paranoid purple nerd guy who tends to pass out a lot. Disgust is a perpetually-scowling green girl. Anger (played by Lewis Black) is a boxy red, middle-aged man who always reads the paper and gets really mad when the headlines say things like “No desert!” Joy, the eternal optimist, informs the audience that every emotion has a job. Fear protects you from doing dangerous things. Disgust stops you from being poisoned. Anger works to make sure your life is fair, despite his poor interpersonal skills.
Everything God creates has a purpose “a time to love and a time to hate, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to dance and a time to sit on the sidelines and try to have conversations over the music (Ecclesiastes).” Everything has a time.
Well, except for Sadness. None of the emotions knows why Sadness is around. She’s a drag. Literally. You have to drag Sadness around while she lies on the floor, letting the weight of the world’s problems get to her. And no one lets her drive the control panel
As for the rest of them, they drive around making memories which are color-coded by emotion for easy reference later. And every night, when Riley goes to sleep, the memories are deposited in long-term memory storage via pneumatic tubes and a bowling ball return thingy. Joy is the leader of the group. She is the most focused and direct and the best able to negotiate with the others. Her goal is to keep all of Riley’s memories happy. Which might not be possible, because every time Riley recalls a memory, the color of the memory can be changed based on how she is feeling in that moment.
When Riley is forced to move across the country to a small apartment in the city. Sadness starts touching core memories and turning them all blue. As she watches her parents struggle under the pressure of the move and her dad’s new job Riley decides to hide her feelings. She is afraid to let her sadness come out because she doesn’t want to upset and disappoint her parents. Inside headquarters, Joy draws a small circle around sadness and tells her to stay put and not to go near any of Riley’s memories. As Joy and Sadness struggle to take control there is a kerfuffle and Riley ends up burying her feelings even deeper. Joy and Sadness get sucked into the deep, dark recesses of Riley’s mind, and they have to go on a serious head trip to get back. If they fail, Riley’s childhood memory islands will collapse and so will her sense of self. Meanwhile Anger, Fear and Disgust, take over the controls (which happens to every teen at some point).
As you can imagine, things don’t go so well. Riley fights with her parents, steals from them, and eventually decides to run away. Basically, Joy needs to get back and reboot Riley’s brain. But Riley’s a human being. You can’t just turn her brain off and on again. You need to go the long way, barefoot, schlepping five bowling balls and Sadness, who, as usual, refuses to walk. Joy, and by extension, the audience, eventually learn that sadness is a real part of life that can’t be cut off from life’s experience. Sadness is not in itself bad. It’s the most therapeutic reaction to the bad stuff that happens. Nobody wants to throw up, but if you don’t do it when you need to, the bad stuff you ate is with you forever. It’s not enough to just cheer up your body by eating something that won’t make you throw up and avoiding the issue. Yes, I know I’m talking about throw up. Since no one is eating today, I decided that Disgust can have the day off.
Emotions are meant to connect people, and Sadness is the most effective at this. Sadness and joy together, are sort of like 2 sides of a coin, that comprise life’s actual lived experience. We say “mitzvah g’dolah lihiyot b’simcha tamid!” It is a mitzvah, a commandment, to always be in a state of joy. But, this isn’t “an ignorance is bliss” kind of joy. Rather, it is a joy that confronts and integrates all of real colors of life including blue. Even the word “joy” has this complexity built into it. Think about it for a moment. Just delete the “J.” It’s as if any Jewish expression of joy has to also be comprised of some oy. And doesn’t the ritual of a Jewish wedding make the same statement? That is, as a bride and groom, or groom and groom, or bride and bride! come together in sacred relationship and covenant, they enter into the holiest and most joyful moments of life,
yet, what happens at the end of every ceremony? We break a glass. On this, the most joyous Jewish occasion, we don’t end with blessing, or wine or even food. Rather, we smash a glass into pieces. Why? In order to make a place for sadness by touching the core Jewish memories of when our most sacred place was destroyed. And to acknowledge that that brokenness remains part of the fabric of all life.
Jewish ritual affirms that in the midst of deep and meaningful joy there is a touch of sadness, and in times of deep sadness there can be a spot of joy. When we leave the funeral of a close family member or friend, we are in a very dark place. So we gather at home with friends and family and we light a candle, and we eat Jewish comfort food, and tell stories that help us laugh and continue to enjoy that person we find our own comfort in the fact that we can continue to love them – that love IS stronger than death.
In the final scene of Inside Out, Riley is still running away and trying to get back to her old home. She is on a bus that is just about to leave the city. And of course Joy and Sadness make it back to headquarters just in time Joy finally let’s Sadness take the controls and Riley begins to feel again how much she loves and misses her family. She stops the bus and runs home to mom and dad. Joy then hands over to Sadness Riley’s core family memories. Everything goes blue and Riley is finally able to cry and express her sadness about leaving home to her parents. “I know you don’t want me to, but I miss home. You need me to be happy but I want to go home, please don’t be mad.” And they surprise her when they say, “no we’re not mad, we miss home too.” They hold each other in a family hug Riley is crying. And then the moment of Truth, when Sadness drags Joy over to the controls and Riley gives us a little smile of relief to be back in the loving arms of mom and dad.
On Yom Kippur we are called on to do this kind of work. We must go inside to touch our deepest memories and feelings. And through prayer repentance and forgiveness, we can experience the joy and relief of bringing the inside out. At the center of this Yom Kippur experience is the Vidui confession. Only it’s not technically a confession, because God already knows what we have done and so do the people we have hurt. So who are we confessing to? Perhaps it is us? We are the ones who have not yet fully faced the fact that we have wronged someone. Reb Springsteen said, “Those memories come back to HAUNT ME! They haunt me like a curse.” Before we have fully acknowledged our sins, we know they are there but until we hold those memories up to the light we can’t really see them clearly. They haunt and terrify us with a shapeless nameless presence, and like a curse we can’t rid ourselves of them. When we have taken out that sin, and put it into a box, it has a name and shape. We separate the sin from our selves and our identity, we are no longer imprisoned by it. We become greater than our sins. We are now good people who are doing our best, but sometimes fail
Speaking of which… How’s everyone doing with their Shema bracelets?
Quite a few of you have told me that it reminded you to say the Shema and to have more Shema moments of listening and tuning in each day. If you haven’t taken the Shema challenge yet it’s not too late. Just don’t beat yourself up about it. When I told our school director Dori about the Shema bracelet idea she loved it and she suggested look into how psychologists are using wrist bands to help people control their depression and anxiety. You wear a rubber band on your wrist for 30 days and any time you have a negative thought, you snap it back really hard to condition yourself to avoid the pain associated with the thought. When I tried doing this, I had plenty of negative thoughts all day long but I kept forgetting I was supposed to slap myself! I would look down at the end of the day and think “Daow! So stupid! I forgot I was wearing the rubber band again! SLAP! I’ll never be able to do this!” Slap! “What is wrong with me? Slap!” Needless to say this only lasted a day. My therapist says that this kind of experiential avoidance is not a very helpful thing to rely on because at some point we need to confront our pain in order to learn from it and grow.
Sometimes struggling is an important part of the natural development of things.
Like the Emperor Moth who has to struggle to get out of his cocoon. There is this tiny little hole that he needs to squeeze through to get out, and the pressure of that tiny hole is so great that it squeezes and pushes the blood into his wings. If he doesn’t force himself through that tiny hole he will never be able to fly. In a moment we will open the Lev Shalem machzor prayer book to continue this work healing inside out. Lev Shalem means – a whole heart. They named this book based on a teaching from the Kotzker Rebbe who said that there is nothing more whole than a broken heart. As Hemingway once said, “Sooner or later, life breaks us all, and we heal stronger at the broken places.” The cracks enable our hearts to expand and be more open. More able to relate to others who are suffering and give us a much deeper capacity for joy.
So as we begin this most awesome and joyful day of the year, I wish you a GOOD Yontif. May you have a good “Good Day!” May you rise like an angel up to the heart of God where Joy and Sadness and everything come together as One. And may you return here for neilah the closing of the gates, to complete this day together with the cry of the shofar and joyful singing and dancing… And then of course, a little babka and a nice glass of tea! Shanah tova and Gut Yontif! Have a Good, Good day!
Rabbi Aaron Philmus
Rabbi Aaron brings a traditional style and approach of prayer to the conservative synagogue. He has a background in ecology and Jewish education and teaches Torah through agriculture and wilderness skills, and plays guitar as a way to bring music to the synagogue. He’s a naturalist who believes that everything stems from nature, and he understands the plight of others who are less fortunate, and how to use the land to enrich ourselves.