As we approach Yom Kippur, my reading material piles up. I have new articles and then some things I reprinted over the last few weeks. I rarely get through the pile and depend on some Hashgachat Perati – Divine Provenance - to make sure that I read those that will add to my classes and speeches and hopefully inspire others and just as importantly, inspire me. We all need that extra bit of heavenly help.
And sometimes I read one thing or look at my old notebooks and then recall an article I may have read many years ago. I can’t remember everything, but even after time passes there are impressions and inspirations that have a way of jumping back into our minds.
Yesterday as I was looking at some notes on Neilah, I recalled an article from years ago which discussed the Neilah prayer. Looking through my notes I had scribbled down at the time that this article took me back to Yom Kippur some forty plus years ago, while I was a boy in the Synagogue of Deal in New Jersey. The songs, the chanting, the tunes of our childhood never leave us. The memories of youth stay with us forever.
Today thanks to Google, one can find most anything posted in the past. And this article in various forms was easy to find. I wish I knew the original author, but whoever it was should be thrilled that his words were used again and again. Neilah is the fifth and final prayer of Yom Kippur. On an ordinary day we pray three times - evening, morning and afternoon. On Shabbat, holidays, and Rosh Hodesh we have an additional fourth prayer of musaf. Only on Yom Kippur is there a fifth prayer.
Neilah means "locking" and therefore indicates the close of the ten days of judgment. Having the gate locked in front of us is a jarring image, one that is meant to motivate us to intensify our petitions before it is too late. We can all recall our rabbis reminding us that the gates are about to close; it’s now or never.
The article presented a different view, one of a chasidic Rebbe who taught a gentler image of the closing of the gates. It is as if God says to each individual: During these awesome ten days we became so close, therefore I want to grant you a private audience. So please come in and close the gate behind you. In other words we are inside the gate, not outside! The author suggests that there is a subtle, paradoxical allusion to this due to the fact that the ark is actually kept open the entire prayer, another unique aspect of Neilah.
Returning to my childhood, I recalled seeing after the Amidah, the entire center isle of the Synagogue fill up forming a line from the entry doors at the rear, all the way up the steps to the ark. Each person on the line would approach the open ark and stop for a few seconds to offer some plea or prayer before the doors would close signifying that Yom Kippur had come to an end.
I am not sure how prevalent this custom is or if it continues even in Deal. If it does, perhaps some more orderly system has been put in place to minimize the natural disorder that might occur.
I remember as a child wondering aloud why they needed to go to the ark. Did G-d did not hear our prayers just as well from our seats? What were the hoping to achieve? Remember that eleven year olds are sure they know everything.
But in hindsight I realize that Judaism is filled with many physical acts which help to change our emotional and intellectual perspective. If we look at that time in front of the ark as an audience with the king; a private audience with G-d, if we look at the line and my turn on line as defining some precious few seconds that one has to communicate with the Almighty one’s last plea as our strength ebbs and before the holiday ends, then it could be a good thing, a very good thing to take on this custom. We strive constantly to make the connection with Hashem.
But perhaps better would be to make that connection from our seats for the entire prayer. We should pour out our words, thoughts, emotions, apologies, confessions and prayers for the entire hour to our father in heaven. And then when we make the connection from our heart to the heavenly throne, we should strive to keep the line open or at least keep the phone number because G-d does not want to grant us an audience for only a few seconds at the end of Yom Kippur every year, he wants us to at least phone home every day.
Perhaps Yom Kippur is the plane ticket home God sends us every year. Come home, he beckons us. We need to keep in mind then that when the day ends, He is not asking us to leave. We join him for Sukkot and Simhat Torah and I bet Hashem would like nothing more than for us to become permanent guests.
When the gates close, he wants us on the inside.
All the best for an easy fast, a productive day and may you be sealed in the book of life for a sweet and happy year.