You Shall Have Nothing But Joy, by Rabbi Roni Handler

We don’t want Yom Kippur to leave us in a slump, struggling to pick ourselves up.  Instead, we must embrace joy so that we may restore balance in the world, in our community, and within ourselves.

There is a popular Sukkot song, which captures the holiday’s essence in just one line:  “V’samchtach b’hagechah v’hayitah ach sameach,” or, “You shall rejoice in your festival … and you shall have nothing but joy” (Deut 16:14-15).  We learn from the Torah that we must be joyous during Sukkot.

As I began making plans for my Sukkah and all of the guests I would welcome into it, I thought about this song. I cannot help but wonder how we can be commanded to be joyful?  I understand being commanded to take or not take particular actions, like building a sukkah, shaking a lulav and etrog, not murdering anyone and not committing adultery.  But how can we be commanded to feel a certain way?  In my experience, I sometimes feel like being joyful, and sometimes don’t.  If feelings were as simple as following a commandment, then surely there would be fewer broken hearts, fewer people suffering from depression, and fewer people who feel anything but joy! 

Coming after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this imperative to be joyous is even more jarring and perplexing.  During the days leading up to and during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we do the heavy work of recognizing what is broken in our lives, where we have fallen short and where we need some work.  This inner work makes us incredibly vulnerable.  We open ourselves to God and our communities. By the end of Yom Kippur, our knees are weak from fasting and our hearts ache from pouring out our souls. But it isn’t good for anyone to be left in this low place. After all, how could we get out of bed and be productive members of society if Jewish tradition left us paralyzed with musings over all of our faults? Instead—on the heels of this extreme low—we are commanded to do the opposite and be joyous! It seems that by shooting us to this other extreme, the sadness and the joy are able to come together as the yin and yang, bringing balance to our holiday season.  

We don’t want Yom Kippur to leave us in a slump, struggling to pick ourselves up.  Instead, we must embrace joy so that we may restore balance in the world, in our community, and within ourselves.  Hag Sameakh!