Linda Hirschhorn
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Ne‘ilàh (5772)

© 2011 Linda Hirschhorn

Delivered at Temple Beth Sholom - San Leandro

It's time for Ne'ilah.

The word ‘Ne‘ilàh’ comes from the word ‘lin‘ol’, which means ‘to lock’, and refers to the locking of the gates of heaven.

In the winter of 2005, the outdoor display artist Cristo and his wife Jeanne-Claude installed ‘The Gates’ 7500 swaths of saffron-colored, pleated nylon banners mounted on poles over all the roadways of Central Park in New York City. Andreas and I decided to go for one day just to see it. Everywhere you walked, along different paths, at different times of day, you came up against the orange gates, each time looking a little bit different as they reflected the snow off the bare branches of the trees, caught the changing light, had crowds of people or no-one at all standing under them. Anyone familiar with Central Park would see it in completely new ways.

And yet, the longer you walked, the more you felt saturated — maybe even bored: Enough, already! The gates were indeed still extraordinary, but how many more gates did one really need to see? On the other hand, we'd be gone the next day, and as the sun was setting low, snow flurries were swirling and the gates seemed to be changing from moment to moment. You didn't want to miss the chance to experience something awesome, something worth being lifted this one day out of an everyday life. Surely there was enough energy for just one last walk through the park.

Yom Kippur is like that, isn't it? — with Ne'ilah being that one last walk.

In these last 24 hours, you may have experienced different emotions — perhaps at the outset you felt excited; maybe you felt inspired, felt you really could wipe the slate clean: a New Year, a new beginning. Or perhaps you started out feeling a bit of dread: it's such a long day, will you make it to the end? Will it be everything you hoped for? Can you stay committed to the process of self-reflection and change?

Ne'ilah, as the last prayer of the day, intensifies this experience and these ambivalent feelings.

On the one hand, it's 6 P.M.: “Yay, just one more hour to go!” You've almost made it to the end, and there are some lovely treats outside awaiting you at the end of the service. On the other hand, “What, another whole hour? Another amidah, another vidui? Haven't we prayed enough already?”

Yom Kippur often feels like a marathon, and Ne'ilah the time when the finish line comes into view; but unlike a marathon where you're hoping each year that you might better your time from the year before, on Yom Kippur we hope that each year we make better use of our time than the year before: a marathon, but not a race.

Ne'ilah was not always part of the Yom Kippur liturgy. It was introduced in Talmudic times by the sages, to increase the chance that our prayers will be answered. Some have suggested that the prayer got its name from the time when Yom Kippur was performed at the actual Temple, and at the end of the day you could hear the gates clang shut. Now we understand Ne'ilah as a metaphor for the closing of the gates of heaven.

The rabbis say that Ne'ilah is the time when the membrane between heaven and earth is more permeable — a time when we are so exhausted and hungry that our defenses are down. In fact, it customary to keep the doors of the ark open for the whole Ne'ilah service, to symbolize that the gates are still open. And we are supposed to remain standing for another whole hour, so if we weren't tired enough already by Ne'ilah, this might do it. There is something about exhaustion and hunger that changes the quality of our experience: We have less energy to be defensive, so we're more open, more vulnerable; perhaps allowing us to face ourselves and each other more honestly. With exhaustion, we slow down, and slowing down gives us a chance to dwell more purposefully on some of the words of our prayers, so this last set of prayers are often the deepest-felt prayers of the day. For just this reason, Ne'ilah has some of the most beautiful melodies and poems (piyutim). According to the Rabbis, one should be brought to tears during this service, reaching new spiritual heights (or depths — Take your pick).

On most days, Jews in traditional congregations pray a shacharit, a minchah, and a ma'ariv — a morning, afternoon and evening prayer. On Shabbat and festivals, they add in an extra prayer, a musaf, to take the place of the offerings once made in the Temple. Ne'ilah is the extra extra prayer: a fifth prayer said only on Yom Kippur.

According to the Kabbalah, the different prayers of the day have the power to access different levels of the soul, with Ne'ilah being the time we reach the highest level, the fifth level, called the yechidah — our unique soul. This level is the essence of who we are. The yechidah is our sense of being in ourselves, and our sense of oneness with the universe. But you can't skip steps: you can't just come for Ne'ilah. You have to work your way up to it, and then find your second wind to keep going. In Hebrew, the word for ‘wind’ is ruach, which is also the word for ‘spirit’. Ne'ilah is our last shot at spiritual transformation.

But one thing puzzles me: Why does it say “Open the gates for us”? (The phrases used are ptach lanu and pitchu lanu.) Isn't the whole point that the gates have been open during all ten days of these Days of Awe? Shouldn't it say: “Keep the gates open a little longer please!”? Or how about: “Hold the doors!”?

And are we just talking about the gates of heaven? If we look at page 724 of our ‘Sim Shalom Machzor’, we read: “Pitchu lanu shaarei tsedek’ — “Open for us the gates of justice”, and in the next paragraph, we read “shaarei orah”, “shaarei brachah”, “shaarei gilah”, “shaarei hod”, “shaarei zchuyot”, etc. — Open for us gates of light, gates of blessing, of joy, of grace, of merit; to which we can add gates of beauty, of goodness, of kindheartedness, and so forth.

Also notice the words “pitchu lanu”: ‘pitchu’ is in the first-person plural — we are not talking only to God, but to each other.

The next paragraph starts with ptach lanu, in the first-person singular; but I would suggest that even here, we are not talking only to God, but to each other, one on one — asking each other, our neighbors, our friends, our intimates; for the sake of all of us, for our brothers and sisters, for our entire community (the word ‘lanu’ is a plural pronoun meaning “for all of us”) to please open the gates of beauty, joy, goodness, etc.

What would it mean to open the gates of beauty? It might mean that, even though we see things we don't like in somebody, or we see things they do that we disapprove of, we still look for the good in them, for their beauty.

What would it mean to keep the gates of dignity open? It might mean that, even if we disagree with someone's viewpoint, we still listen with respect.

Every time we correct a wrongdoing, we are opening the gates of justice.

Open the gates of compassion: Notice when someone near you is suffering; how might you help them?

All these gates are gates we are meant to keep open to each other all year long; and if you haven't yet opened these gates during these 10 days, this is the time to to do it. “Pitchu/Ptach Lanu” is the reminder to all of us that we must never close these gates, because there is no forgiveness without compassion — there is no repentance without goodness and solace. These are the gates we all walk through together all year round; and as we daven another vidui, another confessional, this is our teshuvah — this is our repentance for all those times during the year when we forgot to open these gates. This is our last chance to make amends, and we call upon each other and ourselves to open the gates again.

At the end of Ne'ilah, we blow the shofar. According to the Kotzker Rebbe, the shofar was blown after the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and then everyone went back to their tents. That's when the true test began. It wasn't difficult to be righteous at Mount Sinai. But what would we do when we got home? Similarly, it might be easy to make promises on Yom Kippur, but we need the blast of the shofar to remind us to keep those commitments once we go home, to remind us to keep the gates open all year round.

So you've been here before. Many of you have gone to Yom Kippur services all your life. You know what each prayer looks like and sounds like; you know what Ne'ilah is supposed to feel like. But perhaps this year you can find ways to make it feel different. Take a look at the light coming through our stained-glass windows. Yom Kippur came later in the secular year this year, so it's darker now at this hour this year then it was last year. Look around at each other and see who is here, and who is no longer with us. Make this day awesome, worth being lifted for 24 hours out of your everyday life.

Gmar chatimah tovah.

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