‘They hated us. They tried to kill us’ … An old joke becomes a Yom Kippur message

You know the joke. Time to go way deeper. It's about your life and your soul.

Israeli acrobat Shay Rylski performs on a car-free road, during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. The solemn Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, which annually sees Israeli life grind to a halt, comes this year as the nation is already under a sweeping coronavirus lockdown. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

It is time for me to tell you — or re-tell you — one of the oldest Jewish jokes in the world.

The definition of a Jewish holiday: They hated us; they tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.

The joke is partially accurate. For, in fact, many Jewish holidays do follow that theme. Hanukkah, Purim, Pesach — that is, essentially, what they are about.

But, then there are the holidays that, tragically, represent the failure of this model.

For example, Yom Ha Shoah, which commemorates the destruction of European Jewry. They hated us, they tried to kill us, they succeeded in killing us — and we have not recovered, we will never recover, from that cataclysmic, cosmic loss of Jewish lives, and of Jewish life.

Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, also doesn’t work. The Babylonians and the Romans hated us, they tried to kill us, they succeeded in killing us — it’s not “let’s eat;” it’s “let’s not eat, let’s fast.”

There are holidays that do not fit this pattern at all. Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Shavuot: None of them is about facing our enemies.

They are about facing God.

Then, there is Rosh Hashana. For many Jews, Rosh Hashana is just the end of the joke: Let’s eat.

That leaves one more holiday. Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur totally fits that joke.

Walk with me.

They hated us.

Who are “they”?

Not the Greeks, as on Hanukah. Not the Persians, as on Purim. Not the Egyptians, as on Pesach.

No. Those enemies are the easy ones. Because when you go to war against those enemies, and you defeat them — you’re done.

But, on Yom Kippur, there are deeper enemies that we have to fight. It is never the case that once you have defeated those enemies, you are done — because those enemies just keep on coming back.

I am talking about the internal enemies.

Within us is the yetzer ha-ra and the yetzer ha-tov, the evil inclination and the good inclination. Those drives and inclinations struggle within us. We either strive for the sacred, or we pursue the profane.

The yetzer ha-ra is the strange god that lives within us. It is what prevents us from ascending to the highest, from transcending ourselves, from becoming holy. It is that army of impulses and dysfunctions that so often prevents us from doing what we know we should do.

In his book, “The Gulag Archipelago,” the Russian novelist and human rights activist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote:

“ … It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.”

So, the armies of the yetzer ha-ra live within you. Then what?

They tried to kill us.

Have you ever noticed — that on Yom Kippur, as they are reciting the al chet list — some Jews (I am one of them) — pound their chests.

Why do we do that? Is it self-flagellation? Is it that we see the heart as a door, and we must knock on that door to gain access to our innermost selves?

Or, perhaps something inside of us has died.

New definition of sin: a small death of the spirit.

That is how I now translate al chet shechatanu — at least for myself: for the small deaths of the spirit that happen because … .

When we pound on our chests, we are performing a kind of spiritual CPR.

We won — or we will win — because on Yom Kippur, we fight back.

We will engage in battle on the greatest battlefield there is — which is the battlefield of our inner lives, a battlefield of small victories and of large obstacles.

If sin means inner death, then repentance is nothing less than an inner resurrection of the dead. That which is dead within us can live again.

That is what happens at the end of Yom Kippur.

And then, and only then …

Let’s eat.

As in: we break the fast.

One last thing.

Reb Nachman of Bratslav taught: It is not only that you must recite your sins, your miniature deaths of the spirit, on Yom Kippur.

You must also recite the good things that you have done — the mitzvot that you have done — lest you fall into the larger death of self-destruction.

Reb Nachman understood this very well. He was a great Hasidic teacher, and he was prone to massive, crippling depression and self-torment. He was not alone. Many of the great Hasidic masters were engaged in great battles against the inner forces of despair and melancholy.

About those mitzvot that you do: Each of them becomes a musical note in your soul. Each of those mitzvot become joined to another. They become a chord. Then they become a sacred melody. That melody becomes the song of your life. 

Just imagine: The good things that you do actually become a song of your life.

And that is no joke.

If you observe Yom Kippur, may it be a meaningful day for you. If you fast, may it be a cleansing fast. If you cannot fast, it’s quite OK as well.

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