How would you describe Yom Kippur? A solemn day? A day of prayer and supplication? A day of abstinence? The mishna has a different description. It says Yom Kippur is a day of joy – in fact, one of the two happiest days of the year. This seems surprising to say the least.
I was thinking about this mishna this morning. And a thought struck me. Hope is one of the most powerful emotions; it motivates us like nothing else can. It is the dream of a better tomorrow. It is the sense that no matter what situation we find ourselves in, tomorrow can be better. It drives us to do good in the world – to do the right thing. Without hope, we are paralysed by despondency. To build a better tomorrow, we need to hope for a better tomorrow.
Yom Kippur is, more than anything, a day of hope – and therefore, of joy.
Rabbi Akiva, in the mishna, remarks how fortunate we are to be given the opportunity on Yom Kippur to be purified by Hashem Himself, pointing to the verse in Jeremiah that describes Hashem as Mikveh Yisrael – which can be read as the “purifier of the Jewish people”, but also as the “hope of the Jewish people”. G-d is both our mikveh, our purifier, and our hope.
Think about it for a moment. Rabbi Akiva made this supremely hopeful statement at a very dark time in Jewish history. The Temple had just been destroyed, the Roman Empire occupied the Land of Israel, the Jewish people had been sent into exile. The future looked incredibly bleak. But he was saying to the people of his generation – and to all subsequent generations – never lose hope; never lose faith in Hashem; never forget that no matter what happens, no matter what difficulties we endure, everything is in our loving Father’s loving hands.
From Rosh Hashana right through Yom Kippur, we refer to Hashem in our davening as HaMelech – The King. We acknowledge His complete majesty over the universe – that He can do anything. This is why there is always hope for a better tomorrow. As our sages say: “The salvation of G-d comes in the blink of an eye.” Nothing is set in stone. No situation is beyond redemption. Our hope lies in Hashem.
Yom Kippur gives us another kind of hope – hope in ourselves. Sometimes we give up on ourselves. We feel that being better and doing better and creating a better path in life is something beyond us. Yom Kippur renews our hope in ourselves. It tells us that we can change the trajectory of our lives. As we say in our prayers, Yom Kippur is yom selicha v’mechila – a day of forgiveness and release from our wrongdoings. It’s the day we reset; an opportunity to begin our lives afresh, free from the mistakes of the past. And without those shackles holding us back, we can start to hope for a better future – and start to create it.
The Rambam writes that at the heart of the mitzvah of teshuva – repentance, is the optimistic belief that change is possible; that we can fix our mistakes and become better people; that we can start afresh.
We have hope and faith in Hashem, but also hope and faith in ourselves – as we reflect on Hashem’s hope and faith in us. That is why He gave us the gift of Yom Kippur – the opportunity to make amends and chart a new path in life, to have a fresh beginning. He gave us this gift because He believes we can make use of it.
The joy of Yom Kippur emerges from the hope it gives us: the chance to make a new start, to look at our mistakes, and to find ways to improve ourselves. When we have hope in our hearts, a better tomorrow awaits us.
As we prepare to enter Yom Kippur, let us do so with renewed hope and faith in Hashem and in ourselves – so that we emerge at the end of the fast genuinely new people, charged with the sense of new possibilities for a new year.
May Hashem seal us all for a good and sweet year.
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein