by Rabbi Marc Katz

My sister-in-law Lucia was born on September 11, 1991. Much younger than my wife, she was a kid when the World Trade Center towers were destroyed. That day, as our country mourned, my in-laws baked a cake and celebrated their younger daughter’s 10th birthday.

Now that Lucia is grown, she faces a similar challenge. What does 9/11—perhaps her generation’s most introspective and solemn day of mourning—feel like to her as she celebrates her birthday. How does she navigate the task of letting go and holding on, of self and society? This is a tension not just for Lucia, but for all of us as well. When 9/11 falls on a weekend, does it change the way we celebrate weddings? Housewarmings? Anniversaries? Will the country settle into a specific tone that shapes 9/11 each year?

This tension between joy and sadness, delight and pain exists in a surprising place in our tradition. Our rabbis have been asking the same questions about Yom Kippur that we ask today about 9/11.

Most of us know about the solemnity of Yom Kippur and the 10 days that precede it. One of the High Holy Day season’s most famous prayers, Unetaneh Tokef,tells us that on Yom Kippur our judgments are sealed.  The words, “Who shall live and who shall die” echo into the congregation. It also is a day of affliction and self-denial.  In Lev. 23:26, we are commanded to”[m]ark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall afflict yourselves (v’initem et nafshoteichem),” which is why many fast, avoid leather, and don’t bathe on this day.  Later generations detailed the “five afflictions” of Yom Kippur as:  not eating/drinking, bathing, wearing leather, putting on perfume, or engaging in sexual relations (see Mishnah Yoma 8:1). Additionally, one interpretation of why we remove the Torah from the ark during the recitation of Kol Nidre is that the empty ark serves to remind us of open caskets, evoking the day of our death.

There is little question that a day on which we publically acknowledge our sins, refrain from eating and drinking, and think about death certainly is one of dread.  However, fear and awe should not be the only emotions felt on this day. According to Jewish lore, Yom Kippur also is a day of intense joy.

We read in Mishnah Taanit 4:8: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel said, ‘There were no days better for Israelites than the fifteenth of Av (Tu B’Av or Jewish Valentine’s Day) and Yom Kippur.” The Mishnah suggests that the reason Yom Kippur was such a wonderful day was because all the young maidens of Jerusalem would don white and go dance in the vineyards. Absent from this Mishnah is any mention of fasting or sin because at its core Yom Kippur memorializes three important and positive events in Jewish history:

  • According to many Jewish commentators, Yom Kippur was the date on which God gave Moses the second set of tablets (chronicled in Exodus 34), after Moses smashed the first set when he discovered that the Israelites had worshiped the Golden Calf. If the giving of the first tablets on Shavuot marks a joyous celebration then so too should the giving of the second set as well [Ikkar Tosafot Yom Tov on Mishnah Taanit 4:8].
  • Others assert that on this day God forgave the people for the Golden Calf incident (chronicled in Exodus 32). Because God could have done otherwise, this date is celebrated each year as a triumph of God’s mercy over God’s wrath. [Tifferet Yisrael on Mishnah Taanit 4:8].
  • Finally, our Rabbis teach that the dedication of the first Temple fell on or around Yom Kippur. The dedication was so significant that people ate and drank, despite the holiday. This joyousness echoes out into our time, and Yom Kippur remains a central source of happiness [Talmud, Moed Katan 9a].

In the saga of Jewish time, some dates are associated with sadness. Tishah B’Av, for example, was traditionally a time when any and every bad thing that could happen to the Jewish people happened. However Yom Kippur is the opposite. To borrow terminology from outside our faith, its “karmic” significance is good. Positive things tend to happen on that day. Today, we wear white on Kol Nidre, symbolizing that on Yom Kippur we are closer to angels than at any other time during the year.  This is a positive message to hear when we may worry about whether we were written into the Book of Life.

So, how do we balance the joyous aspects of the day with the somberness and heaviness that fills it? There are few ways to get around the liturgy and fasting. These facets pervade and shape Yom Kippur. However, we still do things that are joyous and meaningful. We surround ourselves with family and friends, we recite the Ya’aleh V’yavo, a prayer reserved for joyous times, we eat large meals both before and after the holiday, we sing (even if in a minor key), and we forget about work for a day, focusing on ourselves instead.

In the end, when it comes to Yom Kippur and to September 11th, the choice of where to place our minds and hearts is ours.  Like Yom Kippur, 9/11 is, for many, a day filled with heaviness.  It also is a day on which to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and weddings. My hope is that each of us can find a balance between sadness and joy—remembering the words of the ancient author of Ecclesiastes who said: there is a “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecc. 3:4)—and that both can happen on any given day.

Rabbi Marc Katz is the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah, a daily e-mail on a topic of Jewish interest. Sign up now to add 10 minutes of Jewish learning to your life each day!