There is a law against revelry after the Pesach seder: ein maftirin achar hapesach afikoman – “After the Pesach meal they should not disperse to join in revelry” (Pesachim 10:8, Danby’s translation). It would break the spell and dissipate the spirituality of the seder to go off to some form of entertainment.
Common sense would apply a similar rule to the end of Yom Kippur. Yet a Sydney Jewish organisation is offering a “Break the Fast Party” with all the features that dissipate the holiness that the day has created. Years ago in London the Jewish Chronicle carried an advertisement for an after-the-fast ball to “dance the Yom Kippur blues away”. The pages of the paper resounded for weeks with the controversy. It was clear that, with few exceptions, the community was adamant that such activities were in bad taste and inappropriate.
Yet do yeshivah students not often tend to dance with the Rosh Yeshivah after Ne’ilah? Is there a difference?
There is all the difference in the world. The truly pious feel such spiritual ecstasy after Yom Kippur that all their thoughts are of God and of religion. We may not all wish to emulate their way of expressing themselves, but whoever we are, our souls are on a high, our spirits are elevated, our thoughts are pure, our hearts are at peace.
This is the magic of Yom Kippur. It begins with the hushed expectant feeling in that silent moment before Kol Nidre, continues through the ebb and flow of the day, and reaches its peak as we stand in awe for the last great moments of Ne’ilah. Some never express it in words, but they know how it moves them and changes their lives.
Franz Rosenzweig, for example. His experience of Yom Kippur in a small Berlin synagogue brought him back from the brink of apostasy and he knew he could never be anything other than a Jew; he became a seminal thinker of modern Judaism. Rudolph Otto, the Protestant theologian, saw the holiness of the Yom Kippur religious experience in a North African synagogue and found a word for it – the “numinous”.
The fact is that on Yom Kippur every Jew becomes a poet and a mystic. It is remarkable. Yes, there are rarefied individuals who are mystics on their own. But Judaism makes a whole people a community of mystics who reach out to the infinite as the infinite reaches out to them.
It began with the Children of Israel standing in awe at Mount Sinai. It has manifested itself over hundreds of generations on Yom Kippur, and indeed at other great moments of spiritual experience. You may not be able to maintain the high throughout the whole of Yom Kippur; but it is with you especially as the day concludes with the echo of the words of the people at Mount Carmel in the time of Elijah: HaShem Hu HaElokim – “the Lord, He is God!”
But then you are going to tell me, the shofar blows, the congregation disperses, everybody sits down to eat, and does not normal life resume? And I say, if this is indeed what happens, Yom Kippur has been a failure.
If it is the secular world with all its drawbacks and distractions which is normal, if it is the follies, frivolities and foolishness of that world where we feel more comfortable, if Yom Kippur has not changed a thing and we do not see life through different eyes, then it was all a hollow act of mere lip service. And what a pity this would be.
What should a Jew do straight after Yom Kippur? Dance the Yom Kippur blues away? Heavens no. If a Jew wants to dance, let it be a Chassidic dance of ecstacy out of joy at belonging to God. The hours after the fast are in their own way a crucial part of the day, an extension of the holiness. This is when, relieved that our prayers have gone smoothly and, hopefully, have been accepted On High, one should say, “Thank You, Almighty, for the privilege of life… for the privilege of being a Jew… for the privilege of partnership with You in completing the work of creation”, and then go straight to the first after-the-fast mitzvah, making a start with building the sukkah.
Yom Kippur is the spirituality of holiness in the soul and spirit. This, however, is only one type of holiness. Another, equally great, is the holiness of ethical living in the mundane world. Holiness is telling the truth, struggling for justice, making progress towards peace. Holiness is honesty in business, integrity in public life, trustworthiness in whatever one does. Holiness is not just looking after my own soul but worrying that others have somewhere to live, something to eat, and a fair go in life.
This is what a Jew should already be working on the moment the fast concludes. How do you make a start on it? You write a cheque to help Jewish education, Israel, local charities. You phone the head of a community organisation to say you are going to give some time to doing good works this year. You take pen and paper and plan the new mitzvot you will be doing this year. (Yes, of course you eat and drink too: after all those hours fasting the body needs attention as well as the soul.)
Whatever you do, you do not come down from the heights with a bang and breathe a sigh of relief that you can now get on with some narrischkeit. That would really be a pity.