Why Yom Kippur is Also a Day of Joy: Its Implications for the Philanthropic Community

by Michael Bohnen

Last week, Yossi Prager wrote a thoughtful piece explaining why Rosh Hashana is not only a day of awe, but also a day of joy. Can the same thing be said of Yom Kippur, the most somber of our holidays? The answer is yes.

Indeed, the Mishna quotes Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel who said that Yom Kippur was one of the most festive days of the year.(1) He explained that on Yom Kippur the maidens of Jerusalem would go dancing in the vineyards, seeking to attract a young man for marriage. He interprets a verse from the Song of Songs (3:11) as calling the girls out to dance because Yom Kippur is the “wedding anniversary” of God and the Jewish people, referring to the tradition that on Yom Kippur the second set of tablets were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Years later, after the custom of dancing in the vineyards was lost, the rabbis of the Talmud explained that Yom Kippur is so joyous because it is a day of forgiveness and pardon.(2)

We see this theme articulated anew in modern times. When Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik first came to Germany in 1926, he was shocked when he heard the joyful tunes that were sung there as part of the Yom Kippur liturgy. He then realized that it was quite appropriate because “there is also great joy on the day that our sins are forgiven.”(3) Soloveitchik noted that the community recites the Al Chet prayer “with a sense of confidence and even rejoicing.”(4)

How does this relate to those of us in the field of philanthropy? While we don’t see maidens dancing in the vineyards anymore on Yom Kippur, this Yom Kippur we can celebrate the many programs which will make for a better Jewish future. On the day we commemorate our people’s “wedding anniversary,” we can celebrate programs like Birthright Israel which, besides increasing connections to the Jewish people and the Jewish State, has dramatically improved the in-marriage rate among young participants. The work of our day schools, our adult education programs, our programs that promote new leaders – among many others – all add to our sense of joy on the day we received the second set of the Ten Commandments.

But, as Yom Kippur comes, some of us in the field of Jewish philanthropy might be tempted to feel that our professional work gives us a leg up on the rest of the world when it comes to balancing good deeds against sins. We may feel that we can “check off” tzedakah, which together with prayer and repentance are said to “mitigate the severity of the decree.” Therefore, we are reminded by another passage in the Talmud that, when we reach the heavenly court for our final judgment, the first question we will be asked is not what our work was, but how we conducted it.(5) For us the important question is: Did we deal with our grantees, donors, beneficiaries, and employees with integrity and dignity? As important as outcomes are to our work, we also need to engage in an organizational cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual audit of how we do our work.

Yom Kippur gives us an opportunity to seek forgiveness for any wrongs we may have done and to resolve that we will improve the way we conduct our work. This special opportunity is another good reason for us to mix our awe with some joy this Yom Kippur.

Michael Bohnen is the President of the Adelson Family Foundation.

1 Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8.
2 Tractate Ta’anit 30b.
3 The Rav, by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Volume 2, p.176.
4 Soloveitchik On Repentance, Pinchas Peli, p. 119.
5 Tractate Shabbat 31a.