A few words at the close of Yom Kippur.
There is a traditional sense about the final prayer of the Day of Atonement, “Ne’ilah” and I’d like to speak about it right now. I hope I don’t ruffle any feathers when I say this, especially right now, so close to the conclusion of the Holiday.
The traditional approach to this prayer stresses the closing of the gates of repentance. That final prayer marks our last chance to beg God for a year of life and such. The name, Ne’ilah, refers to a closing – a prayer offered at the last possible opportunity, one last push to get us sealed on the good side of things. We pray fervently and inspire tears, and use every last second before the Sefer Hachaim (the book of life, or of the living) is closed.
Bosh and piffle. Well, at least bosh.
Yom Kippur is a day of intense pressure. We feel this need to be done by a certain time. We feel the increasing pressure of improving ourselves and changing our lives. We start the day off as lumps of coal, blackened in our sin and we hope that through the affliction and beating of our chests that this pressure refines us into diamonds, so when Ne’ilah comes, we want to see ourselves clear and bright, a radiant Jew-el, no longer that raw carbon, but now, recognized by God as sparkling and precious. But what if we miss that goal? What happens if I am just not moved and the gates close? What do I have to look forward to? Omigosh, I exclaim, here I am, not a polished gem, but still an incomplete work and Ne’ilah is announcing that I am losing my status as an angel, able to supplicate n God’s very presence. I will be back to being some average shlub and God will see my failure!
But that’s just not so. That isn’t the point of Ne’ilah (I contend). Thus the claim of bosh.
A diamond, after intense pressure, is taken out of the dirt and raised up. But it isn’t beautiful. It doesn’t sparkle. It isn’t done. And we by the end of Yom Kippur, shouldn't view ourselves as done either. The stone taken from the ground is uneven, misshapen and dull. It then takes careful cutting and polishing for the true stone underneath to be revealed.
Yes, there are those people who emerge from the crucible that is Yom Kippur complete and radiant – with a perfect cut and with symmetrical facets. I am jealous of them. I am little more than the coal I began as. If I saw the gates as closed I would give up and the year would be lost.
Many elements of Yom Kippur hold a dual value and have self-contradictory meanings. The name of the day, itself is explained to be a day of atonement (with all the gravity and pressure that goes with that) AND a day “like Purim” with the joy of a festive holiday. Some men where a kittel, a long white robe reminiscent both of the grave clothing put on a corpse and the white clothing of an angel in God’s retinue. https://halachablog.com/2016/03/31/the-kittel-at-the-seder/ . We fast (and deprive ourselves in other ways) to create affliction and suffering and awareness of our humanity, but also ascend to angelic heights and transcend the physical.
Ne’ilah, also, has that dual nature.
Yes, this final communal prayer signals the end of the day and the closing of gates, at least in some sense. But don’t we also learn that the gates aren’t actually closed until Hoshana Rabba or Sh’mini Atzeret? And don’t we have dates called Yom Kippur Katan sprinkled through the year? And isn’t a central aspect of each new month’s prayers atonement? In fact, don’t I ask for forgiveness in each weekday Amidah prayer? Don’t some people recite confession every weekday morning? We take Yom Kippur with us throughout the year! How can the gates be closed?
I think that the secret lies in the name of the service, Ne’ilah. Yes, it means close, but it also refers to shoes (na'alayim). One of the five afflictions of the day is the law prohibiting the wearing of leather shoes (ne’ilat sandal) and I think that each of the five prayer services of the day is to remind us that when we are allowed to re-engage in that forbidden activity, we do it in a different way, befitting our cleansed status. So when we are allowed to put our comfy shoes back on, at the end of Ne’ilah, it isn’t so we can resume the same path that brought us to the threshold of Yom Kippur as a sullied lump of coal.
We speak of our ability to run in other contexts. At the outset of the day, many recite "Tefillah Zakah", by Rabbi Avraham Danzig, which points out how we have used our body for evil over the past year. He points out that God gave us legs, and we use them to run towards evil. When someone completes a sizable portion of learning and holds a siyyum, a celebration to commemorate that learning, he recites the Hadran which has in it the line “we run and they run – we run to life in the next world and they run towards destruction.” We ask for atonement for the sin of “our legs running towards evil.”
We can no longer be like that, like “them” – we have to run to something positive. In fact, we start the evening prayer immediately after Ne’ilah; we want to go right into the performance of a mitzvah to show our new direction. Many people go home and put up their Sukkah to continue the string of Mitzvah-keeping that this new person can pursue. But these acts are not the behavior of the completed diamond. They are acts of polishing. That uncut, unfinished gem must continue on that path and keep improving to cut away the unnecessary parts and reveal, through the trials of the rest of the year, the finished diamond.
We must put on our traveling shoes during Ne’ilah. They are the last item of clothing we don before we walk out the door, not the completion of our getting dressed, but the beginning of our journey. Sure, when we are in heaven, we can be like angels. But what will we be like when we are dressed like humans and have to walk through life? Will we follow the path of Yom Kippur for the next 353 days, or will our shoes have us running to destruction? Life is a slalom -- we dodge the obstacles and have to go through many gates.
So let’s put those shoes on at Ne’ilah and walk away from evil. Let’s use every opportunity to confess, repent and ask forgiveness and atonement that we are given over the next 12 months and actualize the potential, finding the polished and perfect diamond that is within us. We aren’t finished – we have just started. Those gates are closed, but we are ready for a marathon.
Wishing everyone a year of life, health and happiness as we run this race together.