There is a dramatic moment in our liturgy that I wait for all year long. It is the final service in the late afternoon on Yom Kippur called Neilah. Neilah means “locking.” The idea is that the Gates of Repentance are closing and these are the last few moments available to us to do the important work of teshuvah – turning/returning/repentance. The intensity is so strong that it actually makes me feel like my very life depends on it.
Neilah marks the conclusion of the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance that began on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and will conclude with this service on Yom Kippur. The only time we include it in our liturgy is on Yom Kippur. I look forward to it because, for me, it is a liberating and cleansing moment. After owning how I have failed and how I have missed important things in the year that past, I can begin again. I have a chance to do better.
I know that there are many people who have never seen this service. After a day of fasting, spending the morning and perhaps a fair amount of the day in the synagogue, and of course, the very Jewish aspect of coming together to eat with friends and family, many people miss this truly awesome experience.
So please, accept this as my personal invitation for you to try something new. To be open to what our tradition has to offer us. I believe that, as the Gates are closing, you will find a beauty to be with your community at such a peak moment of our holy days.
I can tell you that this last section of prayers, after leading services all day and frankly feeling a little exhausted…it strengthens me. It isn’t just the anticipation of ending. It is the drive to finish what I have started. It is the nuances in the prayers that express our gratitude for being written in the Book of Life and hoping that the book will be sealed.
I find a peace by knowing that I have done the hard work that these Ten Days require – asking for forgiveness, trying to do better, acknowledging my shortcomings, and strengthening my commitment to our tradition, to my family, to my people, to my world, and yes, to The Holy One of Blessing.
But it is the very end that is so compelling. We ask God to “open the gates of righteousness” so that we can go through. We take a breath, stand up in front of the open ark, profess how we are aware of our weaknesses but promise to be open to God’s guidance. We express our deep gratitude for all of the beauty in our world, even if we too often focus on the negative or the difficult.
We say Sh’ma Yisrael one time.
We say Baruch Shem Kavod… three times.
We say Adonai Hu HaElohim, “The Eternal One is God,” seven times.
And immediately, standing in front of our ark, often with a sense of awe, relief, joy, and gratitude, we hear the final tekiah g’dolah – the last great blast of the shofar, telling us that we have finished and that we can start again.
I hope you join me for Neilah. The food will still be there when you return. Start again with me and your friends and neighbors at Temple Beth Tikvah, and let’s begin the year anew, together.